Argentina’s short seasons are fun, but are they behind a culture of short-termism?
"Football is economics, sport, and passion," the president of the Argentinian Football Association (AFA), Julio Grondona, said towards the end of 2010. "Unfortunately," he admitted, "the passion comes first."
Despite the man who has sat in the presidential chair at AFA for the past 31 years lamenting the clubs' priorities, there is, in fact, little that is "unfortunate" about the frenzied climate of the short seasons — torneos cortos — in Argentina. The system that produces two champions per European-length season was proposed by the clubs, and willingly implemented by AFA. It did not happen by accident.
Football in Argentina has a long tradition of tinkering with the structure of the professional game. The most famous idiosyncrasy is the three-year relegation averages. The myth surrounding the averages is that the system was designed to save River Plate, but AFA had in fact already decided that none of the Big Five should suffer the same demise as San Lorenzo, relegated in 1981.The idea was that a one-off poor season should not condemn River Plate, Boca Juniors, Independiente, Racing or San Lorenzo to relegation in the future. River Plate were simply the first team to benefit from the system when the millonarios finished 19th in 1983. While the relegation averages were introduced by AFA, the idea of torneos cortos was brought to the table by the clubs — namely by Boca Juniors' vice-president Carlos Heller in the mid-1980s. After the heyday of the 2000s, in which Boca won 16 major trophies, including an Intercontinental Cup win over Real Madrid, it is perhaps difficult to imagine Boca as anything but the all-conquering kings of Argentinian football. But Heller (now the leader of the left-wing Partido Solidario, an ally to the Cristina Fernández de Kirchner government) saved Boca from ruin, together with the club president Antonio Alegre.
In the 1980s Boca were on the verge of bankruptcy. The players went on strike over unpaid wages. The Heller-Alegre duo sold off the club's training ground, in a manoeuvre that Real Madrid would also employ with Florentino Pérez, to wipe out its debt. But while Boca were being rebuilt in the boardroom, success on the pitch was slow to follow. Between the league titles of 1977 and 1992, the xeneizes won just one championship, the 1981 Metropolitano.
Heller took the proposal of two torneos cortos per European season to AFA. Clubs would double their chances of winning a title, poor seasons could be forgotten quickly, there would be added drama for the fans and sticking loosely to the European calendar would mean clubs could still sell in the lucrative transfer window. Importantly, Racing Club supported the initiative — they too were suffering a league title drought.
The proposal was approved. From August to December the first league would be played — the Apertura. The second season — the Clausura — would run from February to May/June. The Apertura/Clausura era is not Argentina's first experience of short seasons, however.
Leaving to one side the debate over whether amateur era titles should count or not, we'll take 1931 — when the professional game began — as our starting point. Between 1931 and 1966, only five clubs won the league title — River claimed twelve titles, Boca ten, Racing six, Independiente five and San Lorenzo three — hence the 'grandes' or 'Big Five.'
In 1967 the system then changed to an annual two-competition format, the Metropolitano and the Nacional. Two groups made up the Metropolitano, with the top two sides in each qualifying for the semi-finals and the eventual play-off to decide the champion. The very first tournament saw Estudiantes de la Plata — coached by Osvaldo Zubeldía and featuring players such as Carlos Bilardo and Juan Ramón Verón — win the title. They were the first non-Big Five club to win the championship. That 1967 victory catapulted the team from relative obscurity in La Plata to win the Copa Libertadores, and to go on and beat Best, Charlton and company over two legs to claim the Intercontinental Cup in 1968. The Nacional incorporated the top sides from the Metropolitano as well as teams from regional leagues too. While one league fed from the other, the new format meant that other clubs would also win the league title. Vélez Sarsfield, Chacarita Juniors, Rosario Central, Newell's Old Boys, Huracán, Quilmes, Ferro and Argentinos Juniors all won their first, and in several cases only, league title.
Yet in 1985 Argentinos Juniors won the last Nacional tournament to be played. Carlos Bilardo saw the need to align to the European model and the August-May competition was introduced. The format barely survived five years, however, ending when AFA accepted the suggestion from Boca and the Apertura/Clausura era began.
The full-season table combining the Apertura and Clausura is still relevant. Qualification for the Copa Libertadores and Copa Sudamericana is determined by it (with the two short-season champions guaranteed their place in continental competition). The famous relegation averages, meanwhile, are based results over three full seasons' results.
In 1990, Newell's Old Boys won the Apertura. Just as Carlos Heller had hoped, Boca Juniors won the Clausura. But in its first year, the title was decided by a play-off between the two winners. Marcelo Bielsa masterminded Boca's demise, and Newell's were champions.
The first Apertura as such was played in 1991 and won by the team that would go on to dominate the short-season format, River Plate. The club from the north of Buenos Aires have won twelve torneos cortos, followed by Boca Juniors with eight, Vélez with six and San Lorenzo with three. Newell's and Estudiantes both have two, with Racing, Independiente, Lanús, Banfield and Argentinos Juniors also lifting the trophy.
But while 12 different clubs have won the title in the past 20 years, and recently the trend has been exaggerated to take it to eight different champions in the past eight seasons (that is, four years), there is an on-going debate surrounding the torneos cortos.
The current format provides the opportunity for both the grandes and the not-so-grandes to have their day. River and Boca have dominated, the other three of the Big Five have all won league titles (albeit fewer than their history suggests they should have) while Vélez installed themselves as the sixth grande with their success. Clubs like Banfield and Lanús, meanwhile, were able to win their first league title in over 100 years. And, importantly, clubs with modest budgets, often with teams populated by youngsters, journeymen and loanees, have challenged for, but not won, the title — Tigre, Godoy Cruz and Huracán are the more recent examples.
Yet as Grondona pointed out, clubs prioritise the fans' passion, and this has produced several structural problems for the game in Argentina. Clubs promise big-name players and guarantee a serious title challenge. If that challenge fails to materialise after just a few games, coaches are fired. In order to keep their job, the vast majority of coaches sacrifice any notion of playing good football, or bringing through players. There is an increasing resultadismo, where winning three points renders any criticism null and void. The deep shadow of the Menotti-Bilardo debate still looms. Developing players, building teams or following a strategy over the course of a number of years figures in the minutes of very few boardroom meetings.
The first major problem is financial, with clubs increasingly indebted. The Big Fives' combined debt totals in the region of £105million (650million pesos). This may be dwarfed by the debt facing the likes of Manchester United or Barcelona, for example, but the ability to generate revenue is minuscule in comparison to European clubs. Until the Argentine state bought the rights to show top-flight games on free-to-air TV, clubs made 50 percent of their income from transfers.
Even with the new television deal, which pays around three times more than the previous contract, clubs still rely on transfer income. Yet moves like Fernando Gago from Boca to Real Madrid (£18 million), or Sergio Agüero from Independiente to Atlético Madrid (£19m) no longer happen. Javier Pastore was the most expensive sale in 2009, moving from Huracán to Palermo for £6.1m (José Sand went from Lanús to Al-Ain FC for the same figure). In 2010, Nicolás Gaitán left Boca for Benfica for £7.3m.
And even when clubs sell players, it is rare that they own 100 percent of the transfer rights. Given their debt commitments, it is common for clubs to sell off a percentage of the transfer rights of a promising player to cover costs. The former River Plate president José María Aguilar sold percentages of three youth team players in order to give the club's iconic stadium, the Monumental, a much-needed lick of paint. Huracán, meanwhile, took just 10 percent of the transfer fee when Pastore moved to Italy.
While the income from transfers has dropped, the numbers leaving has not. It is nothing short of an exodus. A study by Euroamericas last year suggested that Argentina is exporting more players than Brazil. While the figure cited (1,716) includes all movement of players, including transfers within Europe and not just players leaving Argentina, the study is telling.
The short season is one of the engines for this phenomenon. Key players in a side that wins the league title, or even just pushes for the league title, become top transfer targets. Pastore played just one season in the Huracán first team. Gonzalo Higuaín scored a brace for River Plate in the superclásico and was soon gone. Sergio Agüero made his debut aged 15 and by 18 he was in Spain. And it is not just the brightest talents that leave. Like the Brazilians, Argentines are playing all around the world.
The short season also hinders development of certain positions. The age of the best options for full-backs available to the national team — the 32-year-old Gabriel Heinze and the 37-year-old Javier Zanetti — and the dearth of potential replacements points to a structural problem in the domestic game. Many teams opt to play a back three and flood the midfield. Those that do employ a back four often play a defender more suited to a central role in a wide position. Centre-backs play as full-backs, with little licence to roam, owing to the damage-limitation philosophy adopted by many sides. It should not surprise us that top-class Argentinian full-backs are rare.
With coaches pressured to produce immediate results, there is no time to build a squad. The longest-serving coaches in Argentina have been in the same job for as many years as Alex Ferguson has served decades at Manchester United. Successful teams are invariably dismantled and sold off, and the merry-go-round of players is dizzying. When Quilmes, the oldest club in the country, won promotion to the first division in 2010, they brought in 17 new players.
Conspiracy theories abound, as refereeing mistakes — plentiful, varied and comical as they are — are worked into a highly intricate plot that fans are convinced exists and is crippling their club. If it is not the referees who are hurting them, it is the board of directors who are accused of gross incompetence, if not high-level corruption, fraud and theft.
There is another consideration: the culture of violence that surrounds Argentinian football. The barra brava — organised hooligan groups — are dependent on the clubs for tickets, but also for their business. They control various operations in and around football matches — ticket touting, parking, and who can sell T-shirts, hot dogs and the like in and around the stadium. Each club has its barra brava and Raúl Gámez, the former Vélez president, in one interview openly admitted to giving tickets to the barras (and, incidentally, also denied his involvement as a leader of the barra in the '80s), but did say that the return to longer seasons would decrease violence in the game. Fewer must-win games, fewer title run-ins and a generally less-frenzied atmosphere would reduce the risk. With barra-related violence ever on the rise, any proposal to combat it must be considered.
An article in La Nación by Juan Pablo Varsky, published last year during a debate over whether the long season format should return, highlighted another aspect. "It has been 20 years since Argentina passed the quarter-final stage at a World Cup," he wrote. "And it is 20 years that Argentina's first division has played 'short' tournaments." Varsky added that it is merely "a coincidence", but five Under-20 World Championship victories in the past 16 years point to Argentina as one of the top producers of young talent. It is talent, though, that is not being fulfilled.
Of course, the torneos cortos are not solely to blame for Argentina under-performing at World Cups, nor are they to take the responsibility for clubs' debt or the culture of violence in the game. Argentina has nowhere near the market Brazil or Mexico has, so the sale of promising players is to be expected — they simply cannot afford to hold on to players who can earn infinitely more money abroad. The context of the nation's economy, still rebuilding after the meltdown of 2001-2002, cannot be underestimated either.
And while it is fraught with problems, the torneos cortos make for exciting competitions, producing a conveyor belt of alternating champions, surprise packages and gifted youngsters (not to mention the ageing legends on show, veterans winding down their careers after spells in Europe). That is the 'passion' that Grondona, club presidents, journalists, players and fans all talk about. Balancing out the problems it creates is the next challenge.