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Monday, June 27, 2011
River deep, mountain high

Sam Kelly

The great Konrad Adenauer, who led West Germany as chancellor after the end of the Second World War, once said that "history is the sum total of things that could have been avoided." Football fans in Argentina might reflect on that, if they've heard it. Because I type, on a Monday morning, in the aftermath of an historic event in football. Here in Buenos Aires, something happened that many of Argentina's football fans literally never thought they'd see in their lifetimes; River Plate have been relegated from the country's top flight. River were promoted in December 1908, and have been ever-present in the Primera Division in the 102-and-a-half years since (the longest of any side in the country). Since Argentina's league turned professional in 1931, only River, Independiente and Boca Juniors have played every season in the top flight. As from August, when the 2011-12 season gets underway, that exclusive club will be cut to just the latter two. But if you've followed the Argentine season with half an eye, you're probably aware that while there are two championships played each season, River ended the season-long, 38-game table (used for Copa Sudamericana qualification) in sixth, and the Clausura in ninth. So how, you could be forgiven for asking, were they obliged to play a relegation play-off? I've written before about Argentina's relegation system for ESPNsoccernet - check the third paragraph of this piece an explanation - but River improved after that piece back in October, and it seemed they'd done enough to stay clear. Then, however, came defeat in the superclásico to Boca Juniors, and a dreadful run which saw them pick up only three of a possible 21 points in the final seven matches of the Torneo Clausura, with pressure added by the knowledge that the previous two seasons' low points totals were weighing more heavily with every dropped point this year. The system brought in to save River, when they should have gone down in 1983, has relegated them eighteen years on. In none of the last three seasons would they have gone down in a conventional system. Poor form and poor selection for the first leg of the play-off against Belgrano effectively doomed them. Under a year ago, Rogelio Funes Mori was feted as the next big thing. In January Daniel Passarella, River's president, announced he'd turned down an offer from Benfica for €15 million. Few in Argentina still thought him worth that much, but the suspicion remained that someone in Europe was bound to pay a huge figure. Now, River would be delighted if they could get anyone to take Funes Mori. So why he started alone up front for the first leg, God (and manager J.J. Lopez) only knows. River lost that game 2-0, and frustrations grew to the point where shortly into the second half, a handful of the club's barra brava hooligans ran onto the pitch, threatening their own players and grabbing hold of centre-back Adalberto Roman, whose handball had gifted Belgrano the opener from the penalty spot. Defeat left River requiring a two-goal victory in the second leg (away goals aren't used, but the incumbent side in the Primera stays up in the event of an aggregate draw), which always looked a tall order; River's decent season was built on defence, mainly through lack of a goalscoring striker, and they'd won by two goals only once this year, back in February. As such, after Wednesday's game, those of us (yes, I'm a River fan myself) of a less optimistic disposition were already reconciling ourselves to no longer supporting a Primera side. Two minutes into Sunday's match, Belgrano had a goal correctly disallowed for offside. And then the cruel spectre of hope reared its head: Mariano Pavone gave River the lead after just five minutes and they had virtually the whole match to score a second. It didn't arrive. Just after the hour, Guillermo Farre capitalised on a hashed clearance to get Belgrano an equaliser on the day and give River half an hour to score two. Minutes later the hosts had a penalty, which Pavone stepped up to take, and hit straight at the goalkeeper. From that moment the tears started to flow in the Monumental, and the nation gaped at their TV sets as a condemned side played on in the knowledge that they were already going down. With moments to go, as had happened on Wednesday, some idiots started trying to get onto the pitch - a harder prospect at the Monumental, which has a moat and running track - and the referee decided after a couple of minutes' delay not to play the final 30 seconds. Riots in the streets around the stadium afterwards left tens injured, one policeman airlifted to hospital, and unconfirmed reports that a fan had died of heart complications inside the stadium (whether as the result of violence or having become too emotionally involved in the game wasn't clear) didn't help the mood. Stadium facilities were attacked, and the ground - which on the 24th July hosts the Copa America final - will need repairs. Sanctions are likely to be brought once the smoke has cleared. As well as Passarella coming under increasing pressure, some are bound to also turn on Jose María Aguilar, whose incompetent and corrupt presidency prior to Passarella is the root cause of this rot. It's a truly historic moment, and will to take a lot of getting used to. Next season will see no superclásico, no hope of adding to their 33 Argentine championships. Fifteen years previously to the day, they were crowned champions of South America for the second - and to date last - time. This season has ended just as historically, but far more sadly. River, no doubt, will be back - but that doesn't change the fact that Argentina is a country gawping at a scene it never thought it would see, and one which is all the more shocking for having been so eminently avoidable.

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