Images of River Plate's battle to win promotion from the purgatory of Nacional B
"Que se vayan todos" — "All of them must go" — they chanted. In 2001, it was the cry of the Argentinian protestors as the country was mired in a political, economic and social crisis. In 2011, it was the cry of the River Plate supporters. On 26 June 2011, one of the world's great clubs was relegated for the first time. 110 years of history — over 80,000 members, an estimated 14 million fans, an Intercontinental Cup, two Copa Libertadores and a record 33 league titles — had not been enough to protect River Plate from relegation.
They had fallen just one win short of safety — one win over the course of three seasons. Three points from a total of 342 on offer. Ultimately, the points averages that decide relegation in Argentina played against the type of club they were meant to protect. The year River went down, they ended the season in sixth place, yet they faced a relegation play-off.
With Mariano Pavone's penalty miss against Belgrano, towards the end of the return leg, any remaining hope of survival vanished. River were down and the Monumental was soon in flames. Once the smoke had cleared came the realisation that the return would be long and painful, even if it took just one year. In the end, it took 363 days.
They would travel thousands of miles to tiny lower division grounds where they had never played before. They would be greeted with abuse from opposing fans who delighted in River's plight. "RiBer" was scrawled on bridges and buildings: they will never live down having played in the second division — la B Nacional.
Yet there was a groundswell of support — some fans saw the club play for the first time in their lives, others travelled south to Patagonia, west to the Andes and north to the border with Bolivia to follow the side. All the while, the Monumental was packed for home games. Alejandro 'Chori' Dominguez and Fernando Cavenaghi turned their backs on contracts in Europe and offered to play for whatever the heavily indebted club could afford. Midway through the season, the World Cup and European Championship-winning striker David Trezeguet ripped up a lucrative contract in the Middle East to join the club he supported while growing up in Buenos Aires.
Yet despite the formidable attacking trident available to Matías Almeyda, who had taken over as coach just hours after relegation, it would not be easy. Opposing teams turned their 15 minutes of fame into 90 against River. They never managed to build up the comfortable lead at the top of the table that fans were convinced they should have. The boardroom civil war thatcentred on the club president and World Cup-winning captain Daniel Passarella grabbed as many headlines as the results and a sense of paranoia replaced the trauma of relegation — what if they didn't win promotion? After relegation, they reasoned, anything was possible.
Aníbal Greco's photos wonderfully capture River Plate's journey from relegation to tiny provincial stadiums, to the tension in the Monumental as the team stuttered, through to the final day of the season, when River returned to the place they should never have left.