Tuesday, March 31, 2020

SPORTS | 21-10-2017 10:40

Atlanta’s fairytale run comes to an end

In 1991 the Bohemio became the first AFA-affiliated club to declare bankruptcy, and since then the side from Villa Crespo has seen a gradual dismantling of its finances and the facilities. This week’s clash with River was therefore quite the occasion.

Ultimately the fairytale had to end. 

On Wednesday evening, fans of Primera B Metropolitana outfit Atlanta crowded into San Juan’s Estadio del Bicentenario and around television sets in Villa Crespo to see if they could achieve the impossible and continue a remarkable Copa Argentina run. Standing in their way? None other than reigning champions River Plate, coached by cup specialist Marcelo Gallardo. And for some 44 minutes the impossible looked a little more possible. That was the time that Francisco Berscé’s men withstood the Millo juggernaught. They even had them on the back foot for periods of a tense first half. But in a devastating end to the opening period, normal service was resumed. Uruguayan teenager Marcelo Saracchi powered home River’s opener after fine play from Ignacio Scocco, and then disaster struck as the second of the evening followed in almost immediate succession.

Atlanta defender Nicolás Bianchi Arce looked on with horror as he conceded possession almost straight from the restart, and Ignacio Fernández took full advantage to double the lead and essentially end the game as a contest. More goals followed after the break, including Adrián Martínez’s consolation that ensured the Atlanta contingent had something to cheer ahead of the long trip back to Buenos Aires, but it was River that sealed a place in the semi-finals with a predictably comfortable 4-1 triumph over their plucky lower-league opponents.

It was a cruel end, most notably for Bianchi Arce. A lifelong fan of Atlanta, the 30-year-old centre-back finally got the chance to pull on the yellow-and-blue colours of his boyhood heroes after a career that began at San Lorenzo and took in spells with Banfield, Olimpo and periods abroad in Greece, Italy and Colombia. The Bohemio captain took pains not to miss any game of his beloved club, to the extent that he once picked up an intentional booking in order to watch a championship decider in peace.

“It was for the match in which we became (B Metropolitana) champions against Barracas Central in 2011,” Bianchi Arce explained to Clarín in a recent interview. “I was at Olimpo and the weekend before we faced Independiente. I was already on four yellows and poor Patito Rodríguez had to suffer: I kicked him and earned the fifth, so the following Saturday I was at the stadium doing the lap of honour!”

It is no surprise that the defender would go to such lengths to share in Atlanta’s joy. Such moments have been few and far between for the institution synonymous with the Porteño neighbourhood of Villa Crespo, nicknamed the Bohemios due to their previous status as wanderers through Buenos Aires before finally getting a stadium to call their own in Humboldt street. Atlanta are not so much sleeping giants as in a semi-permanent coma, and fans have seen a once-proud club fall into near-ruin over the last 30 years. It was not always so. Back in the 1960s the club boasted international superstars like goalkeeper Hugo Gatti and striker Luis Artime, brought through the ranks by one Osvaldo Zubeldía who in Villa Crespo honed many of the tactical innovations he would later use to legendary effect at Estudiantes. Atlanta became just the second team in history outside of the ‘big five’ to win a professional AFA tournament with the 1960 Copa Suecia triumph, and in 1969 lost out to Boca in the final of the first-ever Copa Argentina.

More dubious firsts were to follow, however, in their long decline from perennial Primera contenders to lower league fodder. In 1991 the Bohemio became the first AFA-affiliated club to declare bankruptcy, and since then the side has seen a gradual dismantling of its finances and the facilities, which had made it a centre of life in Villa Crespo. Having never played below the second tier prior to 1986, Atlanta have now spent 26 of the proceeding 31 years struggling to keep afloat in the Metropolitana.

Perhaps though there is still some hope for Villa Crespo’s favourite son. The second decade of the new millennium brought new hope for Atlanta, as they climbed back up to the Nacional B and in 2012 inflicted a famous defeat on none other than River. That stay proved a short one, but since then the Bohemio have been perennial promotion candidates to rejoin the second tier, while off the field the construction of a new micro-stadium and swimming pool means that after years of neglect Atlanta as an institution are finally putting those dark days behind them. This Copa Argentina run has also helped inject a healthy sum of prize money into club coffers, and no fan will forget two famous victories over top-flight opposition, San Martín de San Juan and Belgrano, that helped them book this memorable if unsuccessful tilt at the semi-finals.

The Copa Argentina has had a mixed reception since it was brought back from the dead in 2011 after more than four decades of inactivity. At the outset teams rarely seemed to take the new competition seriously, although the prize of Libertadores football for the winner has certainly helped there, and the scheduling and venue allocation of the ‘neutral’ fixtures still appears more than a little arbitrary. More than a few Atlanta fans, for example, were left grumbling about the impossibility of attending their side’s biggest game in a generation thousands of kilometres away in San Juan, a curious choice of stadium for two teams based in Buenos Aires – fellow Metro challengers Deportivo Morón, on the other hand, will play their quarter just down the road in Lanús, against Olimpo this Monday.

Those criticisms are valid. But the fact that sides such as Atlanta and Morón are given the chance to play against and defeat the cream of Argentine football is perhaps the greatest vindication of this sprawling cup competit ion. As with England’s venerable FA Cup the Copa Argentina levels the playing field, if only for one day, and keeps the fairytale alive for the legions of amateur and semi- professional footballers who dream of the chance to take on their heroes.

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Dan Edwards

Dan Edwards

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