A year ago, when River finished last, the words River and relegation, did not seem possible in the same sentence says Daniel, a fan of River Plate. One of Argentina's and indeed the world's greatest sporting institutions, the giants of the game are facing just that -- dropping down a category and having to play in the B league -- this Sunday when the second leg of a two-way playoff will determine its future.
Because of a complicated system of averaging points over the course of three seasons, relegation in Argentina's leagues is more a condemnation for past errors rather than present ones. River has not done so dismally this season -- indeed it got off to quite a good start. Bad results in the last 10 or 12 games tipped the point of no return, aggravating the appalling last-place position it managed to scrape together last season.
Association Football leagues the world over have a top tier, or elite, of the best clubs, and movement among these and lower aspirants are to be encouraged. For the fans, the players, and the game at large, the incoming and outgoing shifts are exciting, soul-wrenching, joyous and despairing in equal measure. Huracan, once a great of Argentina's elite, has been demoted to the B already this week, a fact which in itself would have been worthy of a national outburst of mourning and headholding. However, eclipsed under the enormity of the River story, it has seen the tears confined to the Huracan tribe.
River's turmoil itself has been clouded by the serious incidents which took place during the first leg of the playoff against Belgrano de Crdoba on Wednesday night. River was the away team and two goals down when several members of its own fans stormed onto the pitch, wearing masks, in order to bully their very own players suggesting they showed more spirit -- the images were terrifying and unprecedented. Some perpetrators climbed the high fences expertly defying the barbed wire at the very top, while others cut a hole in the mesh at ground level, pouring through it. On the pitch, the confusion and mayhem stopped play for close to 23 minutes, while the referee discussed the situation with the police and the team captains. Eventually, the game went on, and Belgrano retained its two-goal lead.
A certain dose of humor has emerged by some in trying to digest these events. The hashtag #thehoodedfan has been steadily trending on Twitter and more creative onlookers have doctored the images, making comparisons from sci-fi video games to ghostbuster references. Following a to and fro between banning the public from attending the second leg on Sunday, it seems for now that the match will be played in front of spectators after all, and the country's leading cartoonist Nik, himself a River fan, has joked that the thousands of extra police which will be deployed could be parked in front of the River goal.
Yet this is not a comedy, by any means. River's demise in itself is a tragedy, on some level, for the fans, the players and the club. All week, the story has taken center stage in the national discussion forums. Polls on who is to blame are printed in parallel with reactions from soccer experts -- analysis of the tactical decisions are laid out in tandem with financial dissections of the repercussions relegation will have for the club's coffers. Amid the sorrow of grown men who seem to proclaim in unison they have never seen it so bad, the organized thugs who are the vermin of the domestic game took to the stadium again, this time displaying flags of protest, throwing stones, and generally replicating the sordid violence which has somehow come to represent Argentine folklore. The presence of police shields, smoke bombs, and flying debris part and parcel of the ugly spectacle.
If soccer mirrors society, what is being reflected here? Short-termism, sustained corruption, and a lack of unity from our fans Daniel continues. He is one of millions, literally, who truly love the club and form of the fabric of regular fans who week in week out have been following the trials, tribulations and many triumphs the club has sustained. For years. It is hard to explain why we love a club; the players, the goals, the colors -- together with a sense of identity and belonging which humans crave with almost biological determination. This emotional bond with a team is not peculiar to Argentines, or to the game itself. Yet somehow, River's demise has a rancid stench which extends beyond the confines of the club's playing field.
For instance the corruption. River has had years of shameless looting. Being president of River has been a really good gig. With incrementing debts, of course. But if you add the revenues from all the players sold in recent years you can see the numbers don't add up, our representative fan, Daniel, explains. You see a player like Erik Lamela emerge and you know he'll barely last 12 months. Lamela will have to be sold to pay the wages. Before, players like Ariel Ortega, Marcelo Gallardo and Hernan Crespo stayed for three years and picked up a Libertadores. Now you just learn to chant their surnames and have to watch them on HD TV playing in Italy.
Although this may well go some way to explain part of the problem, River is certainly not the only club in this position. The maladministration and brink-of-bankrupcy of Argentine clubs is commonplace. Other factors must also be playing a part.
The lack of a collective project is tremendous says Daniel. Best illustrated by the Barras (organized gangs) but also present in the internal disputes among directors and leaders. It's the same as in the national political arena; the dispute is always over how the pie will be divided. The notion is that the money belongs to someone else and no one will own up or speak out or take responsabilty. This is systematic. All along the chain, someone is taking a 10 or 20 percent slice.
We have heard these concerns aired over past few days, mostly around River stars who were held onto (Rodrigo Funes Mori's father was outspokenly critical of president Daniel Passarella's decision not to sell his son earlier this year), as well as evidenced by the premature departure of Diego Buonanotte, who had a negligible goodbye just before the playoffs, despite being arguably much needed in the days to come. Goalkeeper trainer Pato Fillol also resigned at the eleventh hour, allegedly due to internal disputes.
The debacle is painful -- these men are the lifeline not just of the clubs tradition but of the history of our game. Fillol and Passarella set the standard of excellence in defense in the 70s, both at the club and for the nation, lifting the World Cup in 1978. JJ Lopez (John Joseph), the current manager, now appears a ghostly red-eyed figure, with the demeanor of a rabbit caught in the headlights. He's barely recognizable as the wonderful exponent of beautiful goal-scoring prowess which was his imprint in yesteryears.
They remain players in the elite circles. Interestingly, Passarella lashed out with an outspoken condemnation of Football Association (AFA) President Julio Grondona just a few weeks ago, something which stirred an already heated situation. Several local legends spoke out about this, notwithstanding Passarella's old foe Diego Maradona, who speaking from the Arab Emirates praised his archrival for having the balls to say what we have all known for years.
But you can be certain added a cautious Maradona, that this outburst by Passarella will be paid for on the pitch by River.
Let us hope this is not so. Amid the narratives unfolded by the game conspiracy theories are in no shortage. However, it is painful to have such graphic reminders that this most beautiful of artforms, whose sole purpose is to fill man's leisure time with passion and intensity, is morphing into such a vivid image of everything that is wrong with our world. Thehoodedfan notwithstanding.
River can play a season in the B, win its category and return to the A to continue its tradition for another 100 years of glory. At this rate, Boca Juniors may well join it in the B next season, a highly probable irony which would retain the Superclasico fixture.
But the threats, the fear, the despair -- all of that will take much more than a game to be addressed.