Saturday, April 28, 2012

Further south from Porto Alegre, to more chaos - Argentina. The country was to host the next World Cup, which appeared exciting from a distance – one of the greatest football nations finally was to organize the tournament. Fun? Superficially only… military coup happened on March 24, 1976 and junta, led by General Videla started its infamous rule. The country was on slippery slope for a long time by now, both economically and politically and military dictatorship was not to improve the situation. Given the circumstances, the junta was not really interested in football, but with terror coming from both left and right time was hardly beneficial to the game. World Cup finals were still in the future, but already did not look like great idea. Argentine football was in terrible shape for quite some time, problems became chronic many years ago. Lack of money, in a nutshell. Now, with the military in power, two things were interesting: the one was the ban on strikes, any strikes, imposed by the junta. Players were on strike often – were their strikes forbidden as well? Hard to tell – players strikes were distinct: they were not exactly taking to the streets. Simply, players, whole teams indeed, refused to play scheduled games because of unpaid wages for months. Nominally, labour disputes, but it was striking as far as the new law was concerned. The other result of the grave financial situation of the clubs was the mass exodus of Argentine players and now political reasons were added as well. Yet, it was amassing that most high profile players actually stayed in the country. The most recent example was Norberto Alonso, who moved to France in the summer of 1976, but stayed with Olympique Marseille only half season. He didn’t play well and was increasingly unhappy in France – by the winter he asked his new club to let him go. River Plate was willing to take him back and helped, but Marseille seemed amazingly accommodating – perhaps still smarting up from the fiasco with Jairzinho and Paulo Cesar Lima, the French quickly agreed to let go Alonso and was back in Argentina at the beginning of 1977. The bulk of Argentine stars did not go abroad at all – if one looks at the foreign based Argentine players at that time, most names were either players nearing the end of their careers, or hardly known names. Anyway, their presence at home did not make Argentine football better, but at least attracted people to the stadiums. On the bright side was something else: Diego Maradona made his debute in October, 1976. He was not yet 16 years old. So, General Videla and Maradona happened at the same time…

The championship started a little before Videla stepped in and it was already a Byzantine affair almost on Brazilian scale. Traditionally, Argentina run two championships, which were quite distinct by 1976. The Metropolitano was complicated: the League was divided in two 11-team groups at the first stage. It was standard tournament – every team played twice, at home and away, with the rest of the group. After 22 rounds the first six moved to the second stage and the last five of both groups combined to play in the relegation group. River Plate seemingly continued their revival – the champions of 1975 were first in Group B. Huracan won the Group A, where Boca Juniors ended 4th. The first stage matter little, however – it was important only in terms of relegation and only clubs are really worth mentioning among the unfortunate: Racing Club (Avellaneda) and Argentinos Juniors (Buenos Aires). Racing was far down from their glorious years in the 1960s, and precisely because of that years – their financial situation was terrible even by Argentine ‘standards’. As for Argentinos Juniors, they were hardly known to the world and not really ‘big’ club at home, but it the club having Maradona. He did not appear in the spring (well, the fall in the Southern hemisphere), but nevertheless one of the all-time greatest players was theirs and more or less he was to make the club known. Argentinos Juniors did not win a single match in the relegation group, but managed to finish 7th and better than Racing, with 8 ties out of 9 matches (this stage was 1-match round-robin, everybody starting with zero points). Racing barely escaped relegation, finishing 9th. San Telmo were last and went down.

The real group was the one playing for the title, of course. Huracan came to it with the best record – they did not lose a single match in the preliminary group. They also had the best defense. Good on paper only, for the second stage also started from scratch – no points were carried over from the first stage, thus, the real championship was just this stage. Round-robbin group, but only one match against every other team. Huracan were still strong, but not strong enough… they finished 2nd. Others faired worse: the 1975 champions, River Plate, ended 5th, with record 7 ties. Well, ties don’t win championships… Independiente were really bad – seemingly, the great team reached the end of the road amd were no longer a factor. They finished 10th, losing 8 matches and winning measly 3. Estudiantes (La Plata) maintained their usual strong place, ending 3rd. Boca Juniors were the strongest – 8 wins, 3 ties, no losses, 3 points ahead Huracan, and champions. Mario Kempes was the goalscorer with 22 goals in 33 matches. Unlike points, goals were counted combined from first and second stage. Kempes, already noticed at 1974 World Cup, was establishing himself as perhaps the biggest star at the time, but his goals did not help his Rosario Central – they finished 8th. Curiously, there was no Boca Juniors player among the top goalscorers, but there was a youngster from River Plate endind 6th overall with 14 goals – one Daniel Passarella, a defender.

Metropolitano champions: top, from left: Mouzo, Suñé, Sá, Pernía, Gatti y Ribolzi. Bottom: Mastrángelo, Benítez, Veglio, Felman y Tarantini.

Campeonato Nacional had different structure, closer to cup tournaments: more clubs played there than in Metropolitano – 34, divided in 4 qualification groups. There was no apparent second division and relegation-promotion. One leg round-robbin championship was played in each group and the top teams moved ahead to ¼ finals. It was straight cup format from there – one match played on neutral ground, though in the home city, the winner going to ½ finals and eventually to the final. Boca Juniors and River Plate went all the way and met at Racing’s stadium in Avallaneda to decide the championship. 69 090 fans attended – interstingly high number, considering the political situation in the country. Either football was stronger and more vital than politics, or people found their only distraction from grim daily life in football. Boca Juniors clinched 1-0 victory over the arch-rivals and made a double. Ruben Jose Sune scored the precious goal.

Boca champions of Campeonato Nacional 1976. Second row, from left: Mouzo, Sá, Suñé, Trobbiani, Gatti y García Cambón.

First row: Mastrángelo, Jorge Benítez, Veglio, Felman y Tarantini

Double champions! By rules champions of both championships went to play for Libertadores Cup, so the second Argentine spot was to be decided between the runners up of Metropolitano and nacional: River Plate destroyed Huracan 4-1; Luque scoring a hat-trick. Small consolation for River Plate… Meantime lower divisions played their own championships, organized similarly to Torneo Metropolitano, and Platense won promotion to first division.