Gregory Sica
Wednesday December 16th, 2009

Soccer fans commonly refer to the English, Spanish and Italian leagues as being the best in the world, not only for the abundance of talent on display but because of the level of excitement offered by its top clubs.

But those leagues all have become predictable, and don't come anywhere close to comparing with the Argentine first division when it comes to suspense and overall competitiveness.

That was made even more evident last Sunday, when unfashionable southern Buenos Aires club Banfield finally wrote itself into the history books, winning the Argentine league for the very first time in its 113-year history. Banfield was beaten 2-0 by Boca Juniors, but still finished the season ahead of Newell's Old Boys by two points.

Not only was Banfield's triumph historic, but it was the latest example of the shift of power in Argentine soccer, arguably one of the most competitive leagues in the world. Since its inception, the league has been dominated by the country's two best-supported clubs -- Boca Juniors and River Plate -- with almost half of the titles in their possession. But in recent years, their supremacy has been challenged by several of Argentina's less significant clubs, who have stepped up.

Banfield followed the footsteps of archrival Lanús, which won its first championship just two years ago. Like Banfield, Lanús was never considered a serious threat in Argentina, but was one of a hanful of small clubs that have demonstrated they can mix it with the big guns with hard work and determination.

This season's Apertura Championship went right down to the wire. Even though Banfield and Newell's were the only two teams in title contention entering the final weekend of the season, several other clubs fought them all the way for the duration. But what was almost as surprising was that Boca and River finished in the bottom end of the table, and that not a single member of Argentina's traditional "Big Five" (Boca, River, San Lorenzo, Independiente and Racing) mounted a valid title challenge.

As a result, all of Argentina's biggest clubs miss out on the 2010 Copa Libertadores, with the slots going to Clausura '09 champs Estudiantes de La Plata, Vélez Sarsfield, Banfield, Colón de Santa Fe, Lanús and Newell's.

With such smaller clubs emerging and changing the balance in Argentine soccer, these teams now enter each season believing they have a good chance of winning a championship, even if they have little to no history. Therein lays the evidence why many pundits argue that the Argentine league is the most competitive in the world.

Take a look at Europe's top leagues -- only a handful of the richest clubs win them each year. In England, the title always ends up in the hands of Manchester United, Chelsea or Arsenal. In Spain, it's usually a two-horse race between Barcelona and Real Madrid. Meanwhile, Italy's Serie A has been won by Inter Milan for the past four years.

In Argentina, on the other hand, anything can happen, as there's a very fine line between top and bottom. The level of competitiveness in the league means that no game is ever won until the final whistle, making it rare for there to be a pregame favorite, regardless of who's playing.

So why have the smaller clubs risen up so quickly? Some of it is due to the fact that these smaller clubs no longer deem it necessary to sell their best players to Boca or River, or to any of the other members of the Big Five. Instead, teams prefer to hold onto their best players and patiently wait until they receive lucrative offers from high-spending European clubs. That's exactly why Lanús won the Apertura '07 title, and Banfield learned from its neighbor by doing the same.

Nowadays, Argentina's smaller clubs are more concerned about their performances on the field rather than the money they make off it. As a result, an increasing number of less successful clubs have managed to make an impact. After clinching the title on Sunday, members of Banfield's board confirmed the club will keep the bulk of its side to compete in the Libertadores next year, even if it could make huge profit from selling its top players.

Despite the ongoing problems associated with Argentine soccer, whether it's the crowd violence, corruption or ever-worsening debt, clubs like Banfield are finally beginning to understand that besides everything the most important thing is what occurs on the field. Maintaining that attitude surely will increase the league's credibility.

As expected, Estudiantes, South America's representative in the FIFA Club World Cup, booked their ticket to the final of the competition after beating Pohang Steelers in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday. Los Pincharratas proved too strong for the aggressive South Koreans (who had three players sent off), and although the final result was only 2-1, they were never in danger of losing the match, and should have won by a much greater margin.

Estudiantes now face Lionel Messi's Barcelona in the final on Saturday, and are confident they can topple the European champions. Despite selling a couple of key players after winning the Libertadores for the fourth time in July, Estudiantes continue to be a very solid unit. The presence of Juan Sebastián Verón in midfield is essential -- the 34-year-old captain is responsible for setting the tempo and orchestrating the team's attack.

Verón will be hoping to follow the footsteps of his father, Juan Ramón Verón, who scored a goal as Estudiantes won the Intercontinental Cup for the only time in 1968 after beating Manchester United over two legs in the final. Since returning to Estudiantes in '06 after 10 predominantly successful years in Europe, Verón has confessed that winning the competition would be a dream come true.

If Estudiantes were to lift the title, which isn't a crazy idea at all (the South American representative has beaten the European team twice in the four years since the Club World Cup was reinvented in this format), it would be another demonstration of how far Argentina's less influential clubs have come. The La Plata-based club has a rich history, but only returned to prominence a few years ago.

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