Wednesday, January 23, 2013

In the higher elevations, Primera A, there were two questions: to win the championship, of course, and survival. Of course. The league was to be reduced to 21 clubs for the next year, so three clubs were to go down. Ferro Caril Oeste finished last, the lowest of the low, with measly 23 points. The 22nd placed Temperlay ended with 36 points. Which was no help – they were 3 points short of safety. Above them finished Lanus and Platense with 38 points. Once again face-to-face games seemingly decided final spots, for Lanus had much better goal-difference, but ended at 21st place. But... there is almost ever a 'but' when South American football is looked at. Final table is one thing, relegation – quite another. Lanus and Platense had to meet in a play-off, deciding lucky survivor and the relegated. Whatever the play-off was in terms of beauty, it was at least tough: nobody scored a goal, and after overtime it went into prolonged penalty shoot-out. Platense eventually prevailed 8-7 and survived. The play-off was played in November – long after Metropolitano finished and when Campeonato Nacional was already in progress. Platense was playing in the Nacional; Lanus was not – go figure.

The three relegated clubs were from Buenos Aires, hardly a surprising news, since 17 out 23 Primera A clubs were from Greater Buenos Aires (including Avellaneda). Add 18 out of total 19 Primera B participants. The whole Campeonato Nacional was an effort to break Buenos Aires monopolly, cooked in 1967 by the government. Back then the government bailed out in mass the Buenos Aires clubs from bankruptcy at the price of forcing them to include provincial clubs. Ten years later the clubs were still broke and the provincials were still absent from the top league. Then again, what chances had clubs from somewhere in the Pampa? The freshly relegated Lanus had a stadium with over 45 000 capacity – more sits than most cities population. Even second division Buenos Aires clubs were not happy traveling – and losing money – to places like Comodoro Rivadavia. La Plata, Rosario, Cordoba, Santa Fe, but mainly Greater Buenos Aires – that was and is Argentine football geography. Anyhow, relegation is no fun for anyone. Quite the opposite is winning the title, which in such vast league of old clubs, locked in ancient rivalries and hatred, must be tightly contended. Must be, but was not – two clubs really battled for the first place, leaving 3rd placed Velez Sarsfield entirely out of the race: they were 5 points behind 2nd placed Independiente. The best clubs in the world in 1977, the winners of Libertadores and the Intercontinental Cup, Boca Juniors finished 4th. Which brings back the old money problem... in Europe, a strong club normally was equally strong both in international and domestic tournaments. In South America was different – either international, or domestic championship was sacrificed in order of concentrating in the other games. In Argentina, the most successful South American country on 1970s international club scene, it was all the more pronounced: domestic championships were neglected by those winning internationally. There was no enough money for so both domestic and international football, but there was another problem too – two domestic championship were quite taxing the teams. Adding international tournaments on the same level of concentration spelled out disaster – it was to be either strong at home, or strong abroad, but hardly both. Thus, Boca Juniors did not really have disastrous domestic season – their attention was just elsewhere. The race between River Plate and Independiente was practically equal: they ended with same number lost matches – 6 each, and practically same goal records: 83-46 River Plate and Independiente – 82-47. The difference came from two matches – River Plate won more games, which Independient tied. And River Plate won another title, what's new?

Campeón del Torneo Metropolitano 1977, second row from left: Passarella, Comelles, Merlo, Lonardi, Héctor López, Fillol.

Kneeling: Pedro González, Marchetti, Luque, Juan J. López, Ortiz.

Well known squad in Argentina, but unknown in Europe. Except Fillol, the Argentinian national team goalkeeper, now captaining River Plate. Of course, some names above are very familiar today, but that is not because of 1977, but because of 1978. In a way, this squad was a preparation for the World Cup – strong season-national team-world title-international fame. Leopoldo Luque deserves a note: an year back he was part of the successful newcomers to the league, Union (Santa Fe). Gatti and Lorenzo, the coach, moved to Boca Juniors. Luque – to River Plate. Governments may wish to include provincial football among the best, but provincial club is easily robbed – and plummets down (all is relative, of course – Union still played well, finishing 10th in 1977). Anyhow, River Plate had solid base and quite young too. The age perhaps made the whole difference: many a club depended on old stars – River Plate depended on new batch of talented players. Thanks to Angel Labruna perhaps? Labruna is massive legend – but that is the player Labruna. The coach is hardly ever mentioned... his first spell at the helm of his beloved River Plate, in the late 1960s, was almost a disaster. At any rate, he did not win anything. He led Rosario Central to the Nacional title in 1971, but after that – nothing. An year with Racing Club; an year with Talleres – did not last anywhere and won nothing. He started his second spell with River in 1975. And this time was different – a revival started right away. River Plate restored its 'rightful' place, started winning titles again. Was he a great coach? Who knows... his bios, not tainted by River Plate bias, are laconic: he 'brought much domestic success' to a side 'endowed with players like Daniel Passarella, Norberto Alonso, and Leopoldo Luque'. Hardly the best of praise – looks like the club got, as it ever did, the top players of the country. Not exactly a squad made by the coach, but merely having top talent able to win with or without coaching... Was it so? Quite likely – Labruna is not among the famous coaches in neither category – not among the revolutionaries; not among the great winners either. But River Plate was winning under him – and that was enough.