By John Tilghman
Few club’s in history can match the history of Club Atlético River Plate. The Buenos Aires giants have won an Argentina record 33 domestic Championships, 11 more than the closest competitor, and has consistently produced a stable of young up and coming talents sought after by all of the top European clubs.
Now however, River finds itself strangely on the verge of being relegated to Argentina’s second division for the first time in history.
Argentina’s relegation system operates on a three year scale, implemented to help the biggest clubs stay in the top flight should they encounter financial difficulties.
While other large sides such as Racing, Huracán, San Lorenzo, and Rosario Central (amongst others) have spent time in the lower divisions, the idea that an institution as big and as historically successful as River could be playing against the likes of Independiente Rivadavia or Deportivo Merlo in a year’s time is almost unfathomable.
How then did Los Millionarios end up in this situation then?
A number of factors have contributed, from poor administrators and coaches, financial problems, and issues with hooliganism have all left a massive stain on the once proud club.
Former River Plate president Jose Maria Aguilar is the most named scapegoat amongst fans of La Banda. Perhaps the most unpopular president in history, Aguilar’s reign was filled with corruption and poor decisions.
Youngsters such as Gonzalo Higuain were sold long before they were able to make an impact with River. Higuain played just 32 games at River before being sold to Real Madrid, while the money made on his transfer, and others, was never used to rebuild the side.
Rumors swirled that Aguilar pocketed the cash, and that even members of the Barra Brava (Hooligan group) received a cut from transfers, but regardless of what actually happened, the bottom line remains that when Daniel Passarella was elected in December of 2009 he found a club in ruins.
Although the World Cup winning captain from 1978 has done great things in his short time in power, the club has been unable to overturn the poor results on the field.
Playmaker Ariel Ortega is an idol to the fans and a legend for what he has accomplished, but at 36, the ex-Valencia and Sampdoria man is a shadow of the player he was only a few short years ago when he captained River to the Clausura title in 2008.
An admitted alcoholic, Ortega was even loaned out to second division outfit Independiente Rivadavia in order to be close to a treatment facility, but despite all of his problems, he remains the emblem of the club.
On the season, he has had great moments (producing a goal and four assists), but for the most part he has been far from his best.
Coach Angel Cappa has tried a number of other options in Ortega “number 10” position, but so far, the results have actually been the best with El Burrito in the first team.
Cappa tried 18 year old Erik Lamela out as the conductor agaisnt Godoy Cruz, and even though the youngster is the most talented player to come out of River’s youth system in many years, he is not yet ready to be a full time playmaker.
That is why Ortega always returns to the team. Even when he is out form, Cappa often has no choice but to play El Burrito.
The other option Cappa has to hand the reigns to the team to is Diego Buonanotte, on paper River’s most talented player. Unfortunately, Buonanotte suffered a near fatal car crash in December 2009, and although his recovery has come faster than expected, he is far from his best.
Off the field, Buonanotte could encounter legal trouble for the death of three of his closest friends who were in the car with him that night, and it is clear that El Enano needs time before he is mentally and emotionally ready to be the player he used to be.
He has two goals on the season, but has looked very much a shadow of the player River fans know and love.
The other problem badly hurting River is the defensive midfield position. 36 year old Matias Almeyda was lured out of retirement last year to lend a helping hand, and quickly became one of the club’s most important players.
After leaving River in 1996, Almeyda played for a number of European clubs including Inter and Lazio, and was reignited his love affair with the River fans, but El Pelado suddenly suffered a bad muscle injury four weeks ago, and without him, the defense has begun to leak goals without Almeyda protecting them.
Just this past weekend, River fell to promoted team All Boys, leaving Los Millonarios fourth from the bottom. Should the season end today, River would have to play Instituto Cordoba in a playoff.
How then does River get out of this situation?
Rumors have already started swirling around about possible reinforcements in January, but it will always be hard for an Argentine team to afford top players.
Internacional playmaker Andres D’Alessandro is the man most River fans would like to see join the club, but after winning the Copa Libertadores in August and earning a recall to the Argentina National Team, Inter’s asking price could be too high, although El Cabezon has made it clear he would like to return to River, although he has not been specified when that will happen.
Another popular name is that of Colombian hitman Juan Pablo Angel of the New York Red Bulls who is set to leave the MLS, but at 35 Angel would not be much of an upgrade, and it is rumored the club has already told Angel they are not interested in seeing him return to Nuñez, he is now likely to end up at his first club, Atletico Nacional.
More names will certainly swirl between now and the January window, with the likes of D’Alessandro, Pablo Aimar, Enzo Perez, Javier Saviola, and Mario Bolatti also said to be at the top of the list, but River would have to sell a young star in order to finance a big money move.
The coaching situation will also be addressed, with Angel Cappa close to the door and the likes of former River Plate coaches Americo Gallego and Ramon Diaz the two likely candidates.