After the drought of 2020 in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Argentine football continues to come back in torrents. The dust has barely settled on the Copa Diego Armando Maradona but in just one week's time, the 26 Primera teams – those who were there last year plus newcomers Sarmiento de Junín and Platense – will lock horns once more in a brand-new tournament.
Early indications had suggested that the first half of 2021 would play host to a league competition also named the Copa Maradona. Ultimately, though, there will be no league play, nor will the cup go by that name. Fears of crossing the late legend's lawyer Matías Morla, who snapped up his name rights barely hours after Diego passed away in November, mean that the rather more prosaic moniker of the Copa de la Liga Profesional will be used. We do, however, know what format it will take: two groups of 13 teams will play each other once, with a 13th round of fixtures given over to the AFA's much-adored Fecha de Clásicos (derby round).
At the culmination of that first phase the top four sides from each group will enter a knockout stage, with the final currently scheduled for May. There will be no relegation once again, but the matches will count towards each team's average points tally, with the expectation that league play will finally reconvene after the Copa America this winter. As an upshot Boca Juniors will enjoy the status of champions of Argentine football for a full two years, no matter how they fare in the upcoming Copa.
As always the Xeneize's transfer activities have taken centre-stage in these few weeks where the ball has stopped rolling. Marcos Rojo is their headline transfer, arriving at the Bombonera from Manchester United having played all of 90 minutes of competitive football in the past year, that being a single appearance for Estudiantes on loan before suffering yet another injury. In what could prove a rather ominous sign for Boca, the ex-Argentina defender, veteran of two World Cups at 30, went down hurt in his very first training session for the club; their diagnosis of “a muscle strain due to inactivity” raising very few eyebrows.
As with much of the football world in these belt-tightening, financially precarious pandemic moments, less is more when it comes to new signings. Aside from Rojo, Boca are yet to confirm a single new face, although the Copa Maradona champions have welcomed back Cristian Pavón after a loan spell in MLS. Over at River Plate, meanwhile, the focus has been entirely on retaining players, the Millonario successfully weathering the European transfer window without losing the likes of star right-back Gonzalo Montiel and striker Rafael Borré.
Racing Club have followed Boca's lead in signing two men conspicuous for their inactivity on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, Ezequiel Schelotto and Maxi Lovera, while once more Independiente's full attention has been turned to handling a bewildering array of debts and lawsuits. The Rojo received two sanctions in the space of a single day over money owed to ex-player Francisco Silva and Italian side Torino, leaving the club on the hook for almost US$3million; not exactly an auspicious situation for veteran coach Julio César Falcioni, who took over from Lucas Pusineri in the new year.
Away from the pitch, the stands of all 26 top-flight stadiums will remain closed to supporters. But there is at least one option for football fans who cannot possibly go one more day without seeing the game in the flesh.
The province of Jujuy became the first in Argentina to remove the blanket ban and will allow the sale of 100 home tickets per match; great news for anyone travelling through the northern province who is lucky enough to have the chance to watch Gimnasia strut their stuff in the Primera Nacional in San Salvador, or who perhaps wishes to witness Talleres de Pericó and Alto Hornos de Zapla's ongoing bid for promotion from the fourth-tier Federal B competition. Altos Hornos host their provincial rivals tomorrow with first place in their group on the line, but even before the match they received a reminder of the hazards as well as the benefits of this return to normality when coach Salvador Raguas was accosted by knife-wielding thugs in his hotel room.
Much has changed in this past year; but some things, depressingly, seems destined to remain unaltered.