Not much has changed. Of course, these days the church does not hold such sway as it did in the 1830s, yet in these final days of Lent in the Batman-less Gotham City that is Buenos Aires – and its seaside satellites such as Mardel – the meat shortages and floods are just as prevalent. Whatever the reasons behind it (best investigated elsewhere but which are actually quite interesting and certainly go to the core of many of the nonsensical problems in what should be a relatively prosperous land), la Presidenta Christina actually proclaimed last week: “Let them eat hake.” While, when it rains here it really pours. Hence, although it offers some respite from the dense humidity so cruel on stout, sweat-prone Paddies such as myself, the drains don’t seem to work so the streets fill up, thus bringing into play the great leaping abilities of the Irish signalled by Flann.
The curses, too, the Divine anger spilling over the top of the cruiscín lán, if I may, are still in full effect, many would say. More specifically, the bosteros and the millonarios, the hinchas of Boca and River. For these are troubled, pestilent times for the two most famous teams of Buenos Aires, who have seen themselves engulfed in swarms of locusts. On Sunday, the day assigned for the great, the superclásico, even the Gods seemed to give an Olympian-sized thumbs down as the game included by the Observer as one of the fifty sporting things you have to do before you die was declared a washout after just nine minutes. This has had the somewhat humiliating result that the most super of all super Sundays will now be replayed on a Thursday afternoon (15:45 Argie time; 18:45 gringo time).
Like an obese cat who can’t lick its own back and so ends up having to be brought to the vet to remove the uncomfortable rastas that inevitably form, the superclásico will be shorn of all the fanfare of the build-up (even here seen to be rather sad for the second time in a week), shorn of vast swathes of its prospective audience (working men and school kids: most kids go to school from 13:30 to about 17:30), shorn of the pageantry and unique sense of occasion that, despite all one’s bellyaching about the hype and so forth, really make these days oh so special. Moreover, besides being saddled with the sense of fatigue a false start brings, even the fact that both teams are free to play midweek is another sharp yank of their collective balls: for neither qualified for the Libertadores this year (a difficult feat for you have to be consistently poor under the karmic system in place). Like some kind of mendicant philosopher caught in the nets of his own twisted logic and/or metaphors, however, all of this begs the question as to whether the superclásico is all that super.
By which I don’t mean to prattle out the usual gringo shit about the standard of Argieball – often justified, granted, but just as often pretty smug and uninformed opinion. Nor am I going to debunk the old mystique of the ‘rich against the poor’ and the consequent draining of importance given that even Ushuaia is divided between Boca and River fans. Rather, the fact is that even though both River (Clausura 2008) and Boca (Apertura 2008) have won mini torneos in the last two years, they’re both clearly in the worst shape in recent memory. River have been doing everything possible to live up to their stereotype as preening bottlers for several years now: what appeared to be a transitional phase, accomplished players but lacking rhythm and balls, has morphed into a nightmare scenario where they are regularly outplayed in what now appears to be a monumentally outsized Monumental and which saw them finish last in the Apertura 2008. Despite coming close once or twice in recent years, this championship has seen Boca get off to the worst start in their history (18th place with 8 points from 9 games). Although they boast proven, experienced players such as Riquelme, Palermo, Federico Insúa, Monzón and Battaglia (who’s injured), along with skilful, exciting prospects such as Gaitán, Mouche and Chavez, Boca also feature what is quite possibly worst defence in the history of football, (really, no, really).
After yet another defeat in the Bombonera two weeks ago, this time to Racing (¡aguante la Acadé!), an extremely frustrated, nay emotional, Juan Román declared that the team’s current form was “embarrassing” and blamed the club’s directors for the decision to remove Basile and Bianchi from their respective roles just four days before the beginning of the Clausura. And although no director can really be blamed for the swashbuckling incompetence of much of Boca’s defending, he’s right – and no doubt if they weren’t so blinded by hatred many River fans would admit the same thing about their own club, too. For both teams have been among the worst offenders – Racing are arguably even more unstable – in terms of going through managers like Tiger does cocktail waitresses (topical) or Spinal Tap do drummers (jaja), and this inevitably has an effect on the team. Since Basile left to become Argentina manager in August 2006, Boca have chewed up and spat out Ricardo LaVolpe, Miguel Ángel Russo, Carlos Ischia, and Basile again, as well as the doomed experiment with Bianchi in a saddleless tandem role. River, likewise, have flashed enough King Kong lightbulbs at such devotees of hari-kiri as Passarella, Simeone (the stud in the swingers bar called Argieball), Gorosito and Astrada, as well as a couple of lengthy and eminently forgettable periods under caretaker managers.
You might say that the manager’s importance is overstated and may even point to a club like Chelsea as proof that a team can more or less manage itself. However, one can equally wonder how much more succesful Chelsea might have been had the players’ power been curbed somewhat and had they enjoyed a greater degree of stability over the last few years. Besides, Argieball’s another world entirely. Apart from the kind of institutional instability that would make the Northern Assembly look like the 12th Dynasty of ancient Egypt, the nostalgia born of successive crises that leads to an often fruitless and frustrating dependence on old hands (River: Almeyda, Ortega; Boca: Abbondanzieri, Ibarra; Racing: Ayala; etc.), the young players that continue to be sold before they’re developed enough physically or mentally (Banega, Maxi Moralez, Monzón, etc.), and the old problems such as third-party ownership going unresolved despite/because of Grondona and the Kirchner’s diabolical fútbol para todos (“football for everyone” – why not “free beer for everyone”?), you can add a healthy criminal element in the mafias that wield an absurd amount of influence, and the most important thing of all, the lack of cash.
All these factors surely affect all the teams equally, however. Why is it that Boca and River have fallen so hard? After all, they’re still huge institutions with something close to a stranglehold on youth football, and the well has hardly run dry for two clubs that count about 27 million fans between them in Argentina alone. Moreover, they can’t complain that they have had any restraints put on them by the AFA or that they have been the victims of a quest by Julio Grondona to emulate the Quixotic Platini and make the league more competitive – if anything, it would be the contrary. Also, for all its advantages in stimulating competition and avoiding the two and three-man sack races so familiar from longer, European leagues, the mini league system inevitably exacerbates any problems in an unstable club, cranking up the pressure when things don’t go well and inculcating an extremely myopic approach – hence the manager whirly-go-round, etc. Furthermore, if we recall the very first piece published here on pegamequemegusta, Pipo Gorosito spoke about how things done changed: “The problem is who the small clubs selling their players to. Before, 90% of the players that went to Europe had played for one of the big teams before they were sold on, but today that’s not the case. Think about it: nowadays Boca couldn’t buy Palacio; Banfield would sell him straight to a European team.” If the small clubs sell their players overseas immediately and for greater rewards, the big clubs soon run out of breath and bread.
I don’t by any means think this is the end of the superclásico: they are genuinely too big, of too great patrimonial and financial importance for the rot to continue indefinitely. As with so many of the problems in Argieball, hopefully a real new approach to things will take place once Grondona departs (if he ever does) and there’s anything left to work with once fútbol para todos has run its course (more on this anon). Whether Pasarella proves himself a capable enough chap as the president of River to take over, or the distinguished Juan Sebastián Verón makes an unprecedented leap into politics to take over, I don’t know. For the moment, however, no matter what happens on Thursday this grand old derby looks less super than it does a souped up Ford Escort tearing around a deserted car park, full of sound and fury but tiresome and a little sad.