Jan 19, 2008

Blogger Q n' A: Hasta El Gol Siempre

With the Argentine Clausura league championship and the Copa Libertadores getting ready to kick off, I sought out the preeminent expert on Argentina to share his thoughts. Both tournaments represent what is in my opinion the best club soccer outside of Europe's big three leagues, but most people outside Latin America (myself included) are pretty ignorant on both topics. Sam's task then, was to educate and enlighten us. I can happily say he met both objectives--and then some. After reading this, be sure to check out Sam's website, Hasta El Gol Siempre, where you can follow the Clausura and Copa Lib in great detail.

Soccer Source: First of all, does Lanus have any chance at defending their Apertura title?

Sam: It'll be difficult, but they've got as good a chance as any. It's normal for Argentine sides to suffer a dip in form after winning the title - especially sides other than River Plate and Boca Juniors, because it's that much harder for the 'smaller' clubs to hang onto their key players. Estudiantes, after winning the 2006 Apertura, challenged admirably in last year's Clausura, but San Lorenzo (who won that Clausura) didn't fare so well in the recent campaign.

Lanús, however, have kept hold of both manager Ramón Cabrero, who's like a father-figure for many of the squad, and their most important player, playmaker Diego Valeri. Valeri has been linked with a move to Italian champions Internazionale, but insists he wants to play in the Copa Libertadores with Lanús (they qualified after an impressive campaign in the 2006-2007 season; their championship win ensures they'll be in next year's Copa) before moving to Europe at the end of the European season. With that kind of dedication, who knows what can happen? My own prediction is that they'll do well and continue to challenge, but won't have quite enough to claim a second title just yet.

Who were the biggest winners and losers on the transfer market?

It's still going on as we speak - it being only mid-January. It's easy to suggest Lanús have been big winners, purely for keeping hold of nearly all of their championship-winning squad, including Valeri and top scorer José Sand. So far the really big story on the face of it from outside Argentina has, of course, been Juan Román Riquelme's move from Villarreal back home to Boca Juniors. It's not every day a player who's perhaps the best in the world in his position, and still at the peak of his powers, moves away from Europe, and quite how Boca sorted out the finances is anyone's guess. That deal can work both ways, though - the pressure will be cranked right up on them to win at least one trophy in the next six months, if not both (Copa Libertadores and domestic league).

Thus far, the most 'polemical' move has been Leandro Lázzaro's switch from Tigre to Estudiantes de La Plata, on Wednesday 16th January. There are two big winners in this deal: Estudiantes, who've got one of the most impressive performers of the Apertura for only US$300,000, and Lázzaro himself, who will turn 34 in March and has got one last chance to compete for the Copa Libertadores before his legs start giving way. Tigre, however, probably fall into the 'biggest losers' category. Not only has Lázzaro's exit unsettled some at the club a little - there was a public spat with manager Diego Cagna on the day of the transfer - but the side, who were only promoted last August and managed a second-place finish in the Apertura (their previous best-ever having been sixth back in 1953), have lost perhaps their most important player. How Tigre and their brilliant fans react to this will be very interesting.

What can we expect from Boca and River? River are pretty much done, aren't they?

Don't bet on it. 2007 could most charitably be described as an 'interesting' year in the history of River Plate, and it certainly won't be one they'll want to remember for long, what with the trophy drought continuing (unless one counts the pre-season Torneo de Verano, which no-one does), the various stadium bans, the murder of a prominent barra brava and the allegations of corruption aimed at the board of directors. At the end of it, though, the fans got one thing they wanted - Daniel Passarella quit as manager. In his place comes Diego Simeone, who will if nothing else put the fear of God into his new charges. He's got the players he asked for in the transfer market so far, with the exception of Andrés D'Alessandro (Rodrigo Archubi has just come in in his place), and if River can be a little less unlucky with injuries this term, something could happen. If nothing else, they can't get a lot worse than they were in the Apertura, when despite demolishing all visitors to the Monumental in the first half of the season, they only managed one win away from home and finished way down in 14th. The end of the Clausura will mark four years since their last major trophy, but there's cautious optimism that it could be the end of the drought.

As for Boca, you can expect them to challenge in the league and, of course, the Copa Libertadores, which they'll start as hot favourites to defend, having won it thanks to Señor Riquelme (and a bit of fog at La Bombonera in the semi-final second leg) last year. If they do manage to claim another Libertadores title, they'll draw level with Independiente on seven wins, and thus be the joint most successful side in the competition's history. There's one note of caution here, though: many fans are unconvinced by new manager Carlos Ischia, brought in after Miguel Angel Russo (reluctantly and after being pushed by the board) fulfilled his promise to step down after failing to win the Club World Championship in Japan in December. None of the fans' choices got the job, and Ischia is seen as very much the choice of new club president Pedro Pompilio. The problem here is that Pompilio's presidency may be disputed after former president (now mayor of Buenos Aires) Mauricio Macri handed it over to him without a members' vote. Ischia needs to do well, not only for himself, but also for his boss.

Arsenal shocked people by winning the Copa Sudamericana. What Argentine sides can mirror their success in the Libertadores? Or will people be more on their toes against the "lesser" Argentine teams after Arsenal's triumph?

In all honesty, a Riquelme-driven Boca are going to be favourites for the Libertadores. Should Arsenal win their qualifier they'll go into Group 8, alongside Brazilian giants Fluminense, back in the tournament after a little while away, and Libertad of Paraguay, who have knocked out River in each of the last two editions of the tournament and seem to get just a bit better every year. Qualifying from that group is going to be a very tall order for a side who rode their luck slightly on their way to the Sudamericana final, and who some feel were the beneficiaries of some dodgy refereeing in the first leg of that final.

Group 2 looks like being the most fertile for Argentina, assuming Lanús win their qualifier against Ecuadorian side Olmedo. Estudiantes are already in that group, and with Lanús's championship win giving them some momentum, both Argentine sides will be expected to finish ahead of Ecuadorian champs Deportivo Cuenca. Uruguay's Danubio will pose a tougher challenge, but Argentina will expect two sides in the second round from this group.

Whether any of these 'smaller' sides can go all the way is another matter. I suspect Lanús are going to surprise a few more people on a wider audience in this competition, but the luck of the draw in the knockout rounds will really come into play - the Libertadores, far more so than the UEFA Champions League, is a competition where anyone can slip up if they're not on their guard, as Colombian minnows Cúcuta showed last year on an insanely entertaining run to the semi-final that might even have seen them dump Boca out, had main striker Blas Pérez not had to miss the semi-final second leg having been called up by Panama for the CONCACAF Gold Cup. Cúcuta had already thrashed the other eventual finalists, Brazilian side Gremio, twice in the group stages, and will themselves be part of the competition again this year. Their display last season, if nothing else, should ensure that the big sides are on their guard against all the 'smaller' sides, whether those be Argentine or from elsewhere.

The preliminary Libertadores groups have been drawn. Which Argentine club(s) is/are most at risk of being eliminated in the first round?

River and Boca both have groups that should be easily negotiable, although after River's spectacular failure in last year's group stage, and their aforementioned appalling display during the Apertura, they'll be under pressure. Boca will qualify, simple as that, and as already stated, I'd expect both Estudiantes and (assuming they make it to the competition proper) Lanús to go through from Group 2. San Lorenzo may well find the altitude of their visit to Real Potosí of Bolivia tricky, as may the other sides in their group, and if Caracas can repeat their feat of last season, when they became the first ever Venezuelan club to beat an Argentine side in Argentina (River, of course), and qualified for the knockout stages to boot, Ramón Díaz's boys might find it tricky. Arsenal, if they qualify, will have the toughest group of the Argentine sides, relative to their abilities, but I think we'll see at least four Argentine representatives in the last 16.

What can you tell us about Superclasico games? Have you ever been to one? They're basically impossible to get tickets to, right?

I've not had the good fortune to have attended a super, sadly. Only two have taken place actually during my visits to the country, both last January in the pre-season Torneo de Verano (Summer Tournament) and Copa Revancha ('Revenge Cup'), and neither of those were in Buenos Aires. Tickets are gettable at a price - and we're talking expensive prices by the standards of European football matches, never mind the average Argentine wage. There were tickets on TuRemate, the Argentine answer to eBay, for the Apertura superclásico in the Monumental, which eventually sold for figures into the thousands - of American dollars. Bear in mind that the average Argentine wage is in the region of perhaps US$6,000 per year, and you start to get some idea of the power this fixture holds over the popular imagination.

Broadly speaking, about one-third of Argentines support River Plate, and about another third support Boca Juniors. The exact figures make Boca the more popular by around 1%. The two sides are the most successful in Argentine league history (River have the most league titles, with 32, whilst Boca are ten behind on 22), and of course Boca also have those six Copas Libertadores, as well as enough other international honours to make them the second most successful club on the planet in terms of international trophies (AC Milan are one ahead - December's Club World Championship final was a decider in more ways than one, at least for now). The super dominates so much that many fans claim not to care whether their side win the league title, just as long as they win the derby - and unlike in other countries where such a statement gets bandied about from time to time, Argentines actually seem to mean it.

It's been called 'a championship within a championship', and at the moment Boca have won marginally more than River down the fixture's history - 65 wins to 61 out of 180 meetings - but River, despite that four-year trophy drought, haven't lost a super in any of the sides' last six meetings, and in each of the last two meetings in their own Monumental have not just beaten Boca, but played them off the pitch. It's mark of the game's importance that should one of the new managers get one of the titles the fans of each club so badly want, they might still be under pressure if they don't perform in La Bombonera on the first weekend in May...


  1. Thanks for bringing Sam on with his insights into Argentine football. As an avid follower it is nice to see. Plus, he seemed to be pretty impartial in his assessments despite his allegiance to River.:)

  2. I've been to three superclasicos: 2 in the Monumental, 1 in the Chocolate Box. Tickets can be had for much less than what he said. There are tours that do packages: transport to the game and tickets that you can get for under $100/ticket.

  3. Thanks for the correction, Timoteo. I steer well clear of the tourist packages when in Argentina because, quite frankly, they're an absolute rip-off for every other match of the season, but had previously only heard from locals (and media reports) about the difficulties of getting tickets

    One of my own readers, a Brit now living in Buenos Aires, got tickets to the super during the Apertura simply by queueing the week before - so it obviously depends to an extent when you turn up!