There was always a suspicion that River Plate's relegation was going to prompt radical changes in Argentinian soccer. There was a hope that it would lead clubs to accept that sensible financial management is a must and a recognition that places in the top flight must be earned. But no. The Argentinian Football Association -- at least initially -- did what it did last time one of the Big Five was relegated (San Lorenzo in 1981) and decided that the system of relegation itself must be at fault. Yesterday, though, the president of AFA, Julio Grondona, in the face of mounting public pressure, backtracked.
The reasoning, surely, is logical, but it raises all kinds of questions about Grondona. In part, his move for a 38-team championship was political, Grondona realizing that Daniel Vila, president of the second-flight club Independiente Rivadavia and his main rival for the presidency -- the elections are this year -- was planning something very similar. The logic that clubs in the second flight who might have been tempted to vote against Grondona had far less reason to do so was probably sound, but it was just about the only logic behind the decision.
What is sure is that the decision is unjustifiable on sporting rounds alone -- as though that had any relevance in soccer these days. An analogy can be drawn with English first-class cricket. For 111 years there was a single division formed of initially 14 and eventually 18 counties. At international -- Test -- level, England was rarely dominant, and from the eighties onward it was widely accepted that part of the problem was that the championship was poor preparation for Test cricket. It simply wasn't intense enough; the quality was spread too thinly. From 2000, the 18 sides were split into two divisions of nine, each playing each other twice. Quality was concentrated at the top.
Not coincidentally, in the past 11 years English cricket has gone through a process of gradual improvement -- aided, it should be said, by a system of central contracts and by two excellent coaches in Duncan Fletcher and Andy Flower and two excellent captains in Nasser Hussain and Michael Vaughan. First it stopped being a joke. Then it became competitive. Then it beat Australia for the first time in 19 years. Now, it stands 2-0 up in a four-Test series against India. Should it maintain that two-match lead, it will leapfrog India to become No. 1 in the world rankings for the first time in half a century. The lesson is clear: concentrate talent at the top and the players playing at that level develop technically and mentally because they are being tested on a regular basis.
How big that top division should be is a matter of balance. Ideally, you want as wide a spread of sides as possible -- a variety of challenge is also important; it's useful for, say, Manchester United, to face both the passing style of Arsenal and the more robust approach of Stoke -- without reducing too far the overall quality. How many top-flight sides a country can sustain is largely dependent on individual circumstance: England, Spain, France and Brazil prefer 20; Germany 18, Russia 16 and Scotland 12. Logically, with a population of 40 million, Argentina should be in the 18-20 bracket, as it is now.
A few years ago, an argument could be raised that, given the way Argentinian soccer has historically been cent red on the capital, action was needed to reach out to the provinces. These days, though, the interior is well represented in the top flight with seven sides from outside Buenos Aires province. To make the change now makes no sense.
Nobody yet knows exactly how the new structure will work, but it seems as though the 38 sides will be split into groups with the top teams from each qualifying to play off for the championship and qualification for the Libertadores and the Sudamericana, while the others contest relegation. The problems with that are manifold. For one, it presumes that not every side will play every other side, which surely is fundamental to a fair league system.
And, for another, it removes pretty much the one advantage of the three-year relegation system, which is that every game counts. No midtable team can afford to think near the end of an aperture or clausura campaign that the next game doesn't matter because the 1/38th of a coefficient point available for a win could be vital two years later for avoiding relegation. Now teams in the bottom half of the top half, or the top half of the bottom half -- if that is the way the structure works -- will have nothing to play for.
But the biggest problem will be the diminution in quality. The record of Argentinian teams in the Libertadores recently is poor: three quarterfinalists in the last three seasons. That record will not improve if a quarter (if the split-season system is introduced) of a top side's domestic matches are effectively against second-division sides. Equally, the financing of Argentinian soccer in recent years has come to rely on the export of players: will young players develop as quickly if the general standard is poorer? And how many fans will really be keen to watch, say, Godoy Cruz against Patronato or Colon against Deportivo Merlo? Impressive as Godoy Cruz and Colon have been in the Primera of late, those simply aren't fixtures that will draw the sort of audiences to justify the present TV deal (quite how the rights will be sorted out is another minefield: TyC, already smarting at having its Primera contract broken, is hardly likely to take kindly to losing the rights to Nacional B as well).
The proposal was voted through last week with a vast majority: 22 for, four abstentions (Velez Sarsfield, Racing, All Boys and Newell's Old Boys) and one absence. Grondona reported the change as a fait accompli, but after an online poll in La Nacion showed 88 percent of 20,000 respondents against the plan, he has said it must still be ratified by a special committee. With fans threatening a protest march, though, Grondona seems to have backed down.
It's surely the right decision for Argentinian soccer, but it says little for democracy within AFA, and it raises serious questions about Grondona's credibility.