The past week has been an eventful one for Argentina's two biggest clubs. While one was left reeling from bruising, humbling defeat in Belo Horizonte, the other geared up for life without their coach after a series of disappointing results. No wonder the general perspective for local football has been one of gloom and doom – not to mention lively debate over which of Boca Juniors and River Plate is currently in a worse state.
As if simply to prove that there is no comparison too spurious to let slide when it comes to the Superclásico duo, the inevitable question has arisen. Was Boca's penalty defeat to Atlético Mineiro in the Copa Libertadores last-16, VAR controversy and all, a more respectable way to bomb out of the continental competition? Or is the 4-0 aggregate thrashing suffered by River in part compensated by the fact that they lost to the same rival one round further into the competition? Pressing issues, to be sure; and along with Miguel Ángel Russo's sacking from the Bombonera after he extended Boca's winless run in all competitions to nine games more than enough to ensure that once more the entire nation's sporting lens was restricted to those two Buenos Aires clubs.
Another, slightly more considered opinion is also now in vogue. With Argentine sides suffering massacres in not just the Libertadores but also the Sudamericana, and Brazil well and truly on top this year – three out of four semi-finalists in the former and two in the secondary competition are provided by our neighbours to the north – it is time, apparently, to identify and root out all of the evils that have caused the nation's cataclysmic slump.
All explanations will be heard. From more prosaic arguments about relative financial strength compared to the likes of Mineiro, Flamengo and Palmeiras to Claudio 'Chiqui' Tapia's running of Argentina’s Football Association, even the lack of relegation from the Liga Profesional and (probably) President Alberto Fernández holding a clandestine birthday party for his partner: come, one and all, to diagnose the evils of Argentine society. If there were an international championship for navel-gazing, at least, we might rank among the favourites – although even then Brazil or Germany would probably sneak through to win in the final.
The truth is, as this column noted just a fortnight or so ago, that Argentine football is not in good shape at the moment. The horrendous economic state of the nation over the last four years, compounded of course by the pandemic, has left most clubs in a straitjacket, obliged to sell their best players year on year and make do with inferior replacements. River, after all, went down in the first leg to a goal from Ignacio Fernández, sold to Mineiro at the start of the year, and further evidence of the gulf between the two clubs can be evidenced in the fact that, while the Argentines this week said goodbye to star right-back Gonzalo Montiel, the Belo Horizonte side added the brilliant Diego Costa to their ranks. Careful, though, with making sweeping generalisations: ask the likes of cash-strapped Santos, São Paulo and Fluminense about the wealth and opulence of the Brazilian game and you will be likely to receive a withering response.
In all honesty the biggest disadvantage Argentina's continental contingent suffered was probably calendar-related. The last-16 came before the start of the league season, meaning that teams were out of practice and not sharp enough to compete, particularly against Brazil, where Serie A continued unabated throughout June and July. Not having a Libertadores semi-finalist for the first time in 15 years does not mean football here is in a terminal state any more than qualifying six out of six teams for the knockout stages just a few months ago meant that a new golden age was approaching – no more than Ecuador's first representative in the last four since 2016 in the shape of Barcelona heralds a new all-conquering era for the Andean nation.
Sometimes, a defeat is just a defeat. Marcelo Gallardo set out his side in typically pugnacious fashion on Wednesday and paid the price for River's defensive weakness, while Mineiro put on a show to remember with three sublime goals. The Millonario, whatever the state of their bank balance, will be back among South America's best, and so will Boca once this current crisis passes, with Sebastián Battaglia tasked with turning around fortunes at the Bombonera as Russo's interim heir. The outlook for the game is not exactly encouraging in Buenos Aires and beyond, but reports of its demise are still rather exaggerated.