The province of Tucumán has plenty going for it. Geographically the smallest of Argentina's 25 administrative divisions, excluding the city of Buenos Aires, the 'Garden of the Republic' was the site for the signing of the declaration of independence on July 9, 1816, and it is one of the nation's most productive agricultural zones, producing 60 percent of Argentina's sugar as well as leading the world in the growing of lemons.
Tucumán is also (in this writer's controversial and not entirely unbiased opinion) the home of the tastiest empanadas anywhere in the country, and is a growing destination for domestic and international tourism. Culturally it has contributed such gems as legendary folk singers Ramón 'Palito' Ortega, an ex-provincial governor, and Mercedes Sosa, a symbol of the resistance to the last dictatorship with her defiant anthems, not to mention iconic cumbia artist Gladys 'La Bomba Tucumana' and her famous yellow skirt which sends the boys wild.
But the province also holds its own as a footballing hotspot: Simoca native Luis Rodríguez may not call Tucumán home any more but he is an idol in his native province, while stars from ex-Boca favourite and current assistant coach Juan Krupoviesa and current Argentina internationals Joaquín Correa, Exequiel Palacios, Roberto Pereyra and Matías Kranevitter all sprang up from its fertile soil – and as the rugby centre of the north-west countless Pumas too.
What the province has not had up to now, though, is a champion of Argentine football.
It is not alone in this regard. The national game from its very inception has been largely a Buenos Aires affair, dominated by clubs from the metropolis. One can literally count the champions from elsewhere on one hand: aside from La Plata duo Estudiantes and Gimnasia and Rosario's Newell's Old Boys and Central, no other side has ever broken that stranglehold.
Might this be the year, then, that Tucumán strikes a blow for the vast Argentine interior by wresting the title away from the port?
Wednesday's 0-0 draw against Tigre left Atlético Tucumán, from provincial capital San Miguel, top of the Liga de la Profesional at the halfway stage. After 14 games the team coached by ex-Independiente favourite Lucas Pusineri (another local boy) has picked up eight wins and five draws, while tasting defeat on one solitary occasion at the hands of Arsenal at the start of August. With big-hitters like Boca Juniors spluttering this season, the Decano may never receive a better chance to break that duck than in 2022.
There is nothing fancy about this Atlético team. Just as it was throughout the tenure of Ricardo Zielinski, which saw them reach their first-ever Copa Libertadores, Pusineri's side is built from the back. The squad is a typical mix of promising young hopefuls and loanees from fellow Liga clubs, journeymen grafters and grizzled veterans, most notably club idol Guillermo Acosta, who was born in nearby Alderetes and has racked up more than 200 games for the team over two spells and eight years. But they are well-drilled, fiercely competitive and defend better than almost any of their peers while still posing a threat at the other end.
Bolivia international goalkeeper Carlos Lampe, best known in Argentina for spending six months on the Boca bench in 2018 without playing a single minute, has conceded just three goals in his last eight outings, all of which came at the hands of Arsenal. Atlético give almost nothing away in their own penalty area and have a knack of doing just enough to win, with six of their victories coming by a single-goal margin and five by virtue of a 1-0 result at full time.
“This team's great virtue, as I see it, is how well they train,” Pusineri beamed after Wednesday's draw. “The competitiveness and preparation we've managed makes the players come together and make an enormous effort. Even more so with the strain that travelling from the interior causes. I am grateful and put my trust in all these players.”
Holding on to the top spot will not be easy, of course. Atlético's last 14 games include three away clashes against Buenos Aires' grandes, Boca, Racing Club and San Lorenzo, while Pusineri's relatively young squad will also have to deal with the novel pressure of a title challenge as the campaign nears its end. But they are undoubtedly on the right track, and if they can keep grinding out wins, the chance to make history as Argentina's first 'interior' national champion lies tantalisingly close.