In politics as in football, Argentina is a notoriously difficult country in which to make accurate predictions.
Few, for example, would have bet all the way back in January 2019 that by the end of the year, the hitherto unheralded Alberto Fernández would be sitting in the Casa Rosada as the country’s latest president, with Cristina Fernández de Kirchner moreover taking a backseat as the ex-Cabinet chief’s vice. Perhaps even fewer would have dared to imagine that, as the last ball stopped rolling in the Superliga, Alberto’s beloved Argentinos Juniors would be sitting pretty ahead of the likes of Boca Juniors, River Plate and Racing Club at the top of the pile.
The turnaround in La Paternal has been nothing short of miraculous. At the start of 2019, midway through the last Superliga campaign, Argentinos languished rock-bottom having won just 2 of their first 15 games. The arrival of Diego Dabove, however, began to turn around the Bicho’s fortunes. Three further victories in the last 10 games of 2018-19 failed to improve on their league standing but did serve to usher Argentinos away from the relegation zone, while in the following Copa de Superliga they enjoyed a run to the semi-finals and were unlucky to miss out against a harried Boca side.
Even so, few would have bet on the Paternal side being anything more than top-half challengers in 2019-20, making their fine form in this first half of the season such a surprise. The loss of young star Alexis Mac Allister to Boca was absorbed and veteran journeyman Santiago Silva added much-needed muscle and ferocity to the forward line, making Argentinos an extremely difficult prospect for any team. Monday saw them play for the chance to go three points clear at the summer break with victory over Estudiantes; they may have fallen short thanks to Nicolás Colombo’s late equaliser after Silva put them ahead from the penalty spot, but few in the Estadio Diego Armando Maradona were left complaining with the onepoint advantage held over Boca and Lanús with just seven games left to play once the league reconvenes at the end of January.
Dabove has been crucial to this revitalised team. The rookie coach – he was forced to retire at 27 after a non-descript professional career and went on to spend time as a goalkeeping coach and assistant at the likes of Boca, Racing, River and the Bahrain national team before finally stepping up to the top job – made an immediate impact with first club Godoy Cruz, steering the Mendozans to the Copa Libertadores and a second-placed finish in 2018.
He picked up exactly where he left off back in Buenos Aires with Argentinos while the Tomba went into free-fall, and is now considered one of the most promising coaching names in Argentine football, attracting interest from Racing as a potential successor to Eduardo Coudet. Dabove, however, is determined to finish the job in La Paternal, saying after the Estudiantes clash: “I feel great here, very comfortable. I have a great relationship with the board, so you will have me here breaking balls for a while yet.”
There are certain parallels to be drawn between the ascendancies of President Fernández and Dabove, two figures who worked for years in relative obscurity before jumping into the spotlight. Alberto indeed confirmed that, hours before his inaugural speech as Mauricio Macri’s successor, he had one eye on Monday’s game. “We were playing for important things. If we won, we would go top. Now we are top but just by one point. That was the target, all the same,” he told Radio con Vos.
“Yesterday, while I was finishing my speech I was watching out of the corner of my eye. But in the last 15 minutes I had to focus on the game, because [Estudiantes] had us against the ropes, scored that unfair goal and from there the tension wouldn’t let me keep writing,” he told an interviewer.
Tuesday’s speech was
thankfully free of any footballrelated metaphors, and marked the moment when the new
president’s life changed for
ever. Just like his beloved Bicho, Alberto finished the year
on top; now the hard work begins, with Argentina in need of
strong, just governance to end
the cycle of inflation, devaluation and poverty which has
been the hallmark of these last