Reforms are afoot to transform a bloated, confusing league into something resembling normality anywhere else. But change won’t be easy
If a week is a long time in politics, or so the phrase goes, then sometimes in Argentine football it feels like a lifetime. It’s been less than four months since Claudio ‘Chiqui’ Tapia was elected as the new president of the Argentine Football Association (AFA) and already the national side and the domestic leagues are undergoing serious change.
Edgardo Bauza was the first victim of this, as Tapia and his new look AFA swiftly decided to give El Patón the boot and while the well-publicised pursuit of Jorge Sampaoli took an eternity, Chiqui got his man.
This first order of business was undertaken to the backdrop of institutional and financial chaos; the parting gift of deceased former president Julio Grondona, whose sudden death three-years-ago had left a vacuum in the AFA, but the boost of appointing Sampaoli was a mere drop in the ocean when it came to Argentine football’s problems.
While Lionel Messi has papered over the cracks at senior level, dragging his teammates to three major finals, the state of disrepair is clear at youth level. The glory days of José Pékerman and co, which yielded five under-20 World Cups in twelve years, has given way to a decade of neglect and failure.
A plan of action for Argentina’s youth
This week Sampaoli and Tapia unveiled the new plan and aside from Nicolás Diez being appointed under-20 head coach, the AFA brought back a couple of former players who know all about success at youth level – Pablo Aimar, in charge of the under-17s and Diego Placente, heading up the under-15s.
The idea of a common philosophy flowing through all levels of the national team system up to Sampaoli’s senior squad has obvious advantages but the road is a long one and sits awkwardly with the AFA’s typically short-term outlook.
However, after more than 30 years of Grondona-isms to fix, there was never likely to be a quick resolution.
The job of overhauling the national team was made to look positively straight forward when compared to the state of the country’s domestic game.
Grondona’s timely death undoubtedly saved the AFA mob boss from being caught up in the eye of the FIFA corruption storm but the investigated misappropriation of funds left the nation’s football on its knees.
The government backed Fútbol Para Todos scheme, which saw all Primera football televised live on free-to-air channels was scrapped, and the lack of funds and planning for life after the Grondona-President Kirchner alliance, led to the Players’ Union strike that disrupted last season.
The AFA have since negotiated a new multi-million-dollar deal with US company Fox-Turner and amid renewed threats from the union that action could be taken over unpaid wages, the influx of cash will hopefully see those outstanding bills settled and the much-vaunted Superliga commence without a hitch on August 20th.
A new Superliga launch
For all the talk of the Argentinean Superliga – television rights aside – it will look very similar to last season but change is afoot and the wheels are in motion to end Grondona’s farcical 30-team monstrosity of a league.
Four relegated sides this season (Sarmiento, Atlético de Rafaela, Quilmes and Aldosivi) are gone and coming up from the Nacional B will be champions Argentinos Juniors and one other, meaning next season’s Primera División will be contested by ’just’ 28 clubs.
Tapia has confirmed that these reductions will continue over the next couple of years until the top flight is back down to a more friendly 22 and for the time being at least, the year-long season will run from August until May (with the summer break during December and January) to coincide with the European calendar.
So next season, the Primera’s 28 teams will play each other once with an extra round of clásicos, meaning the respective derbies will still be played twice. Understandably the clubs aren’t keen on this arrangement given that it means certain teams have more difficult matches than others and some don’t even play proper clásicos (the AFA has to arbitrarily appoint some of the fixtures).
Fox-Turner are in favour for obvious reasons – two Superclásicos are far more marketable but when Boca Juniors need to face off against River Plate twice while the likes of San Lorenzo face relegation-threatened Huracán, there are clear advantages and disadvantages to not having the exact same fixture list for all the clubs.
No more big club protection
For now it will remain but the other potentially huge change that Claudio Tapia has mentioned is an end to the promedios, the average points system that determines relegation. The average points per game are calculated over a three-year period (or for however long the side have been in the top-flight) and the lowest is relegated.
A system that clearly protects the big clubs, allowing them to recover from a poor season and remain safe, which on the whole works (River and Plate and Independiente notable exceptions in recent years) but that causes confusion among casual spectators of Argentine football.
Tapia’s proposal to get rid of this might be met with some objections from the grandes but what seems clear is that the AFA are at least attempting to create a more viewer-friendly and European league.
The opening Superliga season to start next month will be a good indication of how smoothly things run as a lot can happen between now and Tapia’s vision of a 22-club top flight, with no clásicos round and no average relegation system. That may sound simple and logical to a European audience but it’s still an alien concept in Argentina.