Is Argentine soccer a one-team show? As we near the conclusion of the group stage of the 2009 Copa Libertadores, all but one of the five Argentine participants are in danger of missing out on a place in the knockout phase. Predictably, the only survivor is likely to be Argentina's most dominant club, Boca Juniors.
With a perfect record after three games, Boca will be assured a berth in the knockout rounds with a victory over Guaraní of Paraguay on Thursday. Los Xeneizes won 3-1 when the teams met in Asunción last month, and are expected to claim another three points at La Bombonera.
Having won four of its six titles in the last nine years, Boca has been the clear dominator of the Libertadores, and what particularly has highlighted its impact in Argentina is that no other club from the country has lifted the title since River Plate did back in 1996. Compare that to the stretch between 1964 and '86, when Argentine clubs won 15 Libertadores titles (six of whom were different teams), and you get an idea of how badly Argentina has slumped recently in South America's version of the Champions League.
In fact, apart from Boca, not a single Argentine club has even reached the finals since '96. When considering the competitiveness of the Argentine First Division and the number of world-class players it produces each year, that's a startling statistic.
The Argentine and Brazilian leagues are still neck and neck in terms of which country best represents South American soccer. But although Argentine teams continue to look impressive on paper, their results in the continent's premier club competition don't back that up. Much of this has to do with the lack organization and management of Argentine clubs.
Boca may not be the shining example of how to run a soccer club, but it's still financially stable and a good model for Argentine clubs to follow. Not only does it continue to maintain a strong base each year, but its production line is also first-rate. That explains why it has achieved a great deal of international success, envied by its fellow Argentine rivals who can't seem to make any kind of progress, no matter how hard they try.
The trend is likely to continue again this year. While Boca is still undefeated in the Libertadores and looking extremely solid, the rest of the Argentine contingent is on the brink of elimination. After its frustrating scoreless draw with Uruguay's Nacional in Buenos Aires on Tuesday, River Plate has been nearly eliminated from the group stage of the competition for the second time in the last three years. Los Millonarios were crushed 3-0 by Nacional in Montevideo, and were also beaten by Universidad San Martín of Peru. With only two matches left to play, advancing to the next round seems beyond River's capabilities.
This is a particularly worrying sign for Argentine soccer, as River -- the most successful club in the history of the Argentine league -- is, quite frankly, not good enough to compete at an international level anymore. Generally, when a traditional power such as River loses its edge, it's replaced by an emerging team with a lot to prove. But that hasn't happened this time around, as its followers have been equally disappointing.
Estudiantes de la Plata was the favorite to replace River in the Argentine hierarchy, but Juan Sebastián Verón & Co. have played well below their potential, and unless they pick up maximum points against group leader Cruzeiro on Wednesday, they also may be sent crashing out of the Copa. More daunting to Estudiantes' chances is the current form of Cruzeiro, which thrashed the Argentines 3-0 when the teams met in Brazil back in February.
At the beginning of the year, it seemed as if Estudiantes was a good bet to put an end to its 39-year wait for an international title. But even though it boasts one of the most exciting squads in the competition, serious internal problems greatly affected its performances on the field. After reaching the final of the '08 Copa Sudamericana, Estudiantes has struggled to find any kind of consistency and currently languishes in 19th place in the 20-team Argentine league.
San Lorenzo finds itself in a similar situation. Although it spent big money in assembling an incredibly talented squad, it has failed to live up to expectations and is also on the verge of elimination from the Libertadores. Its campaign got off to a flying start with a 4-1 victory over San Luis, but el Ciclón lost its following three matches, including home and away defeats to Libertad of Paraguay.
But no club has been as disappointing as Lanús. With only two points from a possible 12, it finds itself at the bottom of Group 6 and in need of a miracle to reach the next round. The strangest thing about Lanús is that it currently leads the Argentine Clausura Championship, and has proven -- by far -- to be the best team in Argentina this season.
El Granate needs to claim victories in its final two group matches in order to remain with an outside chance of progressing. But don't count on it. Next up is a clash with Mexican powerhouse Chivas in Guadalajara. The only positive sign for Lanús is that it has arguably the most in-form striker in South America, JoséSand, who scored four goals in a 5-1 demolition of Independiente last weekend. But not even Sand will be able to rescue Lanús this time.
There's no easy answer as to why Argentine clubs are struggling so much in the Libertadores, but depth might be one factor. San Lorenzo and Estudiantes, in particular, have been hit hard by injuries. They just can't compete in both international and domestic competitions, which has forced them to concentrate on only one at a time. Lanús is simply a small-budget club that can't muster the resources to keep up in both competitions. Although it has done well to keep its key players, being competitive in two tournaments is just too much to ask.
Even a team of Boca's stature has faced similar problems. Though the powerhouse has been razor-sharp in the Libertadores, it has been highly vulnerable in its domestic campaign. Last year was the opposite, as Boca prioritized winning the Apertura Championship and decided to turn out with a weaker team for the Copa Sudamericana. Predictably, the two-time winners of that tournament were eliminated in the quarterfinals.
Times are definitely tough for Argentine clubs, and unless these teams make some serious changes in the years to come, the country's reputation in South America's biggest tournament could become significantly worse. Once again, Boca will feel the pressure to carry the Argentine flag across the finish line this year.