Welcome to the Monumental. A legend at the place, you’ve just been elected presidente of the club with which you share your birthday. Times aren’t great but you’ve never been a shirker and, hey, surely ’tis better to have a chance to bring about change than to be a puppet or just meddle unnecessarily like some silly Pharoah.
So the party ends. You thank your supporters, make a few declarations and go upstairs to check out your throne. It feels good. It feels good to look out over this vast bowl, the scene of so many triumphs, a World Cup, even. So there haven’t been too many triumphs lately, sure it needs a lick of paint, but this is River, che!
You open a drawer and take out a jotter. When you open it at a random page a strange burning smell fills the air. The pages are covered in satanic doodles, exclamation marks abound and it’s written exclusively in red ink. Very curious. You close the book and look at the cover: Club Atlético River Plate: End of Year Accounts 2009.
Oh shit. Welcome to the Monumental.
Let there be no mistake about it: El Kaiser is a man of his word. On taking over as President of River, Passarella insisted his main concerns were sorting out the club’s finances (River are $150m in debt, only own full rights to five pros in their squad, are losing $1.2m a month and all income from TV contracts, advertising and upcoming rock concerts has already been frittered away by the previous president, José María Aguilar), trying to hold on to players and not ceding such a large percentage of their ownership to ‘investors’, making the management of the club more ‘European’ (which we could somewhat flatteringly read as ‘less corrupt’). And so far he has done so, as a delightful puff piece in Olé informed us a while back, by persuading established players, like Almeyda and Gallardo,and exciting prospects, Villalva and Funes, alike to lower their wage expectations; by insisting only he and the Vice President are authorised to sign cheques; by having the roof on the indoor pool fixed; by negotiating with Mercedes-Benz for five new vans when he learned of the scandal that buses had been rented for $300k a year to bring the youth players to training; by visiting their digs to control their comings and goings and installing an ex-player, someone he can trust, to watch over them; by replacing the security firm responsible for keeping undesirables out of the club’s various institutions and showing up at six in the morning to make sure all staff rostered to be on duty were doing their jobs. Oh, less an aloof Kaiser than a medieval king, El Rey, Supremo Juez, albeit fictional:
Y pues el día
aun no se muestra, lleguemos,
don Diego. Así, pues, daremos
color a una industria mía,
de entrar en casa mejor,
diciendo que me ha cogido
el día cerca, y he querido
disimular el color
del vestido; y una vez
allá, el estado veremos
del suceso; y así haremos
como rey, supremo juez.
Calderón de la Barca, El médico de su honra
The one thing he swore he would not meddle in was the manager’s job. And he didn’t. Yet yesterday Passarella was forced to come down from his Bielsa-like world of administrative obsession and boot out manager Leo Astrada – and by phone, too. Today he gave his first press conference after 110 days in charge, and he defended himself over what appeared to be a rather callous dismissal: the phone call to Astrada had been to invite him to a meeting at the Monumental the following day. Ten minutes later, however, the manager rang him back, and when he asked if the meeting concerned the rescission of his contract, Passarella informed him that it was. “Contracts are made to be honoured. I said that when I ran [for president] and i meant it. But I could not honour this contract. The [team’s] campaign is hardly even worth mentioning. River’s bigger than any name or any man.”
Indeed, River is a huge institution but their performances this year have gone from awful to unbearable. They lie in 18th position, have lost 7 out of 13 games – including an anaemic defeat in the Bombonera -, scoring just 8 goals. This follows upon the previous three mini-tournaments where they’ve finished 20th (last, Apertura 2008), 8th (Clausura 2009) and 14th (Apertura 2009).
Therefore, while it wouldn’t be the first time a trigger-happy president used this line to appease the legions of fans right outside the door baying for blood (Boca finally disposed of the hapless Alves the other day), in a league where it’s notoriously difficult to get relegated, River are bizarrely close to making the impossible possible. In the relegation table, which is worked out over each team’s averages over the previous two years, only newly-promoted teams and serial relagation candidates, such as Racing and Rosario Central, are below River. There’s still a plump enough cushion below their sweating arses (they’re 15th but with an advantage of some 18 points on long-suffering Racing) but it is reasonable to ask what guarantee there is that things are going to improve on the pitch. Managers have come and gone – and come and gone again, Passarella (1990-’94) and Astrada (2004, 2005, 2010) both having had two goes at unchoking la gallina – but where are the players?
Intriguing in this era of collective hard-on for the football scientists and pedagogues at Barcelona’s La Masía, River appear to be a fine example of how to fuck it all up. Besides being cash-strapped and in a depressed market, the machine that produced enough exports to keep a small country flush seems to have ground to a halt. Where are the Ortegas, Gallardos, the Crespos, the Almeydas, the Aimars, the Solaris, the Luchos, the Saviolas, the Mascheranos, even the Cavenaghis or Carrizos, the D’Alessandros or the Demichelises? Bunanotte and Gonzalo Higuaín are the only two players to have come to any prominence over the last few years from River’s once infallible academy.
Of course these things often come in cycles but in this case many agree that one man was responsible for the step-up, the extra push that meant River had far more than their fair share of Argentina’s exports, even in an era when Boca produced the likes of Riquelme and Tevez and Argentine players were crossing the pond wholesale. That man was the Brazilian Vladem Lázaro Ruiz Quevedo, commonly known as Delem. Born in 1935 he joined Vasco da Gama when he was just 7 years old and rose through the ranks before coming to River Plate in 1960, where he played as an inside left until 1967. In the 1980s he began to work as a scout and, later, took charge of River’s youth program. All the players listed above were discovered by him and/or passed through his hands. In 2001 Aguilar deemed him surplus to requirements and kicked him out of the club. Delem worked thereafter on some cheap TV shows and died in a cake shop in downtown Buenos Aires in 2007.
If you think of the real formative years of footballers, then, even 25 year olds like Mascherano would have joined River about 13 or 14 years ago, at the least. While of course River is a huge institution and they and Argentina as a whole have continued to produce and export players, hardly anyone of the same class has come through since he left nine years ago. In the meantime, players have been sold at ever younger ages (Higuaín was hardly 19 when he was sold), and the returns have become ever smaller due to the sale of percentages to groups of investors at knock-down prices (foregoing the possibility of greater revenue in the hope of profiting on a few duds – most likely for entirely corrupt reasons, too). Thus, despite having amassed an estimated $248m in player sales in the ten years to 2007, the club that boasted that it was like Buenos Aires’ famous opera house, el Teatro Colón, since not just any old dogsbody could sing there, ended up bankrupt and player-shy, another dysfunctional Argentine club riven by corruption and with a seemingly endless parade of masochists eager to have a go on the manager-go-round.
There is rarely a long time between one manager leaving and another taking his place, and today was no exception. Strangely, though, even though Ángel Cappa was given the job today, he must already sense nostalgic fans’ favourite Ramón Díaz sniping away. Passarella gave short shrift to suggestions that el Pelado Díaz was really the preferred candidate, saying “I heard on the news there was a demonstration outside the ground, but when I went out to look all I saw were twenty lads shouting away. River has 17 million fans.” Ramón Díaz, just like Bianchi at Boca, is invoked every time the media mention the good old days, and indeed he, too, seems hungry to return to the Monumental after a Sven-like jaunt with Club América, in Mexico. He was not at all happy this evening at Passarella’s line about the 20 fans; and while they can hardly silence him, or anyone else in the media, if things don’t go well you can be sure the carping Díaz will be back like a shot to regain what he regards as his rightful place.
As for the man who has the job, Ángel “articulate for a footballer” Cappa is one of the few real football intellectuals left in Argieball management. Indeed, the blogger and author of several books on tactics exiled himself to a certain extent in Spain these last few months in order to recuperate from the dismay at seeing his beautiful Huracán team dismantled by a scurrilous administration. He took over Huracán, a classic Buenos Aires team, when they were near the foot of the table in 2008. Like Arsenal but only using the young Argentines at his disposal Cappa transformed the team, who played sparkling football, referred to in the onomatopoeia beloved of the tactile Argentines as tikki tikki. They played Velez for the championship on the last day of the Clausura 2009 and were robbed by horrible refereeing and a goal that came from a foul on their goalkeeper 8 minutes from time. Six of their first team players, all young – including De Federico, Pastore and Bolatti – were sold and Cappa was informed there would be no money to replace them. He left and the experiment ended.
Now, albeit at a much bigger club, it will be extremely interesting to see if Cappa can work wonders again, as he did with Huracán and even Real Madrid (1994-96), where he worked alongside El poeta Jorge Valdano, giving debuts to young players like Raúl among anothers. This time, though, given the amount of scrutiny enjoyed by an institution such as River Plate, it would be surprising if he managed to unearth hidden gems. Still, as someone with a proven record and sound football principles, if he can’t do it, River really are lost.
Pegamequemegusta makes no pretence about impartiality, and so, despite pretty much hating River, hopes that for football’s sake this experiment works , that if any players are uncovered they won’t be sold before making their debuts, and that this time Passarella won’t be forced to break his promise. After all, River is not Quanglo-Irish Bank, like it or loathe it, Argieball needs an institution the size of River to be in good shape if it’s to pull itself out of the mire. And if all goes well, Cappa could end up ousting the not-so-cunning-as-he-thinks Diego, Passarella the ogre Grondona, sanity insanity, and somehow, someday, Racing might be World Champions again.
I’ll personally give a tenner to anyone who reads this far.*
*Only in person. May be 10 pesos.