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Jul 30, 2011

The AFA's attention-grabbing antics

The metaphorical bunting for the Copa America was unceremoniously ripped down when rivals Uruguay won the trophy on Sunday, and on Monday the Argentine FA met, clearly thinking they needed to do something spectacular to steal back the limelight from their neighbours.

They made one undeniably good decision. Sergio Batista, who shouldn't have been given the job in the first place, was bundled out of the door and is no longer national team manager. No-one is sorry to see him go. Former Leeds and Sheffield United midfielder Alejandro Sabella - who managed Seba Veron's Estudiantes to the Copa Libertadores two years ago - has taken over and much is expected.

Sabella was the favourite for the job when Diego Maradona was ousted, and is a welcome return to sanity in the management of what should be one of the big-hitting national sides in the football world, given the talent at Argentina's disposal. Along with Batista, various youth managers have also been shown the door (including the awful Walter Perazzo, who will manage the Under-20s in the World Youth Cup in his native Colombia before leaving his post), and there will be new staff brought in at all levels of the coaching setup.

Exactly how Batista left is murky, but rest assured he has not, publicly at least, been sacked as reported by many media outside Argentina. AFA president Julio Grondona prides himself on never having sacked a manager, and we can be sure that Batista went the same way as so many before him - a quiet word in his ear 'inviting' him to leave with some dignity intact.

In most countries, getting rid of the national football manager would dominate the sports pages easily. But that same day the AFA made another decision. A decision so amazing that it completely blew all talk about Batista and Sabella out of the water. In August next year, a new-look top flight will begin in Argentina. With thirty-eight teams.

Changing the league format isn't new in itself. It's happened often in Argentina, from season-long championships, to an era when sides from the main cities were only joined by the rest of the country for one of each year's two championships, to the current 'short championship' era which began in 1992. But the proposal which was voted in with a huge majority on Monday is too much for many here. The AFA has finally jumped the shark.

Twenty-two votes for, four abstentions and one absence formed a resounding win for the project, which would see thirty-eight sides making up a new first division, formed from the current top two divisions. Several likely systems have been bandied around, but the one that seems most likely sees two groups of nineteen clubs each.

Traditional rivals - for example River Plate (guaranteed a return to the top flight thanks to the expansion, barring a disastrous second division season during 2011-12) and Boca Juniors - would be in different groups, but would play their clasicos as two 'inter-zonal' matches. Everyone's happy with respect to the fixtures that get most TV money.

When the two tables are complete, they'd be split, and the top sides would go into a new group to play off for the title, and qualification to the Copas Libertadores and Sudamericana, whilst the rest would fight to avoid relegation (according to some versions, a Sudamericana spot would also be up for grabs in this group).

Outside Argentina, people seem to think this is solely, or mainly, to do with ensuring River Plate's safe return to the top flight as quickly as possible, but in fact it's more complicated than that. There's obviously an element of protecting the big teams; Boca, San Lorenzo and Racing all begin this season stuck in the relegation mire thanks to poor previous seasons in the relegation points averaging system used in Argentina (which I've explained for ESPNsoccernet before), but that won't matter if relegation is abolished for the current season. AFA spokesman Ernesto Cherquis Bialo actually said on Tuesday that the 'some teams bring in the biggest slice of cake,' and that the AFA has to protect those sides, before the next day being told off by Grondona for saying so.

Grondona's the man behind it all. He stands for re-election for the AFA presidency later in the year, and what better way to ensure lots of votes from the electorate - club chairmen - than by allowing twice as many of them into the top flight? At the same time, doubling the TV money provided by the government for the rights to publicly screen the Primera Division swells the AFA's coffers. Suggestions that the government themselves might have leant on Grondona in order to spread their own popularity by pushing the deal through (in an election year for them, as well) were denied by the AFA on Wednesday. The fact that denial was thought necessary is, for some, instructive.

What the AFA don't seem to have been prepared for is the furious public backlash against the idea. Nearly 20,000 people have voted in an online poll on La Nacion's sports website, and 88% are against the idea. Threats have been made to burn down the AFA headquarters if the plan goes ahead. And having previously passed the proposal and announced its implementation as a fact, Grondona now claims that 'before the end of 2011' a committee will vote to ratify whether the system will be introduced or not.

In the meantime, clubs will begin the Primera Division campaign next weekend not knowing whether there's any relegation to fight against or not at the end of the season. That's only one of the many ridiculous aspects of this whole farce. Argentine fans are praying the new league never sees the light of day, but whether it does or not, the AFA has really excelled itself this time.

Follow me on Twitter at @HEGS_com and find my blog at hastaelgolsiempre.com

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