Seventy days is a long time for anyone to undergo lockdown, but when one's livelihood depends on physical activity and fitness the spell may well feel like an eternity. Despite the long weeks confined indoors, however, Argentina's quarantine period has been largely observed to the letter by its footballers – until Deportivo Riestra gained the dubious honour of becoming the first club to break the rules and face the corresponding sanctions.
Riestra, based in the southern Buenos Aires neighbourhood of Villa Soldati, a stone's throw from more illustrious neighbours San Lorenzo's home stadium, were caught holding a training session on Wednesday which involved several players being put through their paces by the club's fitness coach. The Primera B Metropolitana side did so without the authorisation of the Argentine Football Association (AFA) and now face stiff penalties for the transgression, which could include even being removed from the football pyramid.
“We are very angry,” AFA’s freshly elected vice-president, Marcelo Achile, fired off to the TN news channel. “The disciplinary tribunal already has all the information to investigate.”
He continued: “Riestra could face a very severe sanction because they have broken AFA regulations. They will prepare a statement and a decision will be forthcoming. That could be anything from a points deduction to disaffiliation.”
It is not the first time that the Soldati club has found itself in hot water in recent years.
As recently as 2013 they found themselves in the bottom-tier Primera D, but amid a host of celebrity faces that came to lend a hand – Diego Maradona found himself acting as the club's honorary coach and motivational speaker that same year – a rapid rise up the divisions ensued, culminating in promotion to the B Nacional in 2017 via a play-off win over Comunicaciones.
That clash, however, was mired in controversy when Riestra fans invaded the pitch with five minutes still on the clock and their side ahead. In farcical circumstances those remaining minutes were replayed at a later date, to the annoyance of no few observers who held that the club should have suffered a walkover defeat; they held on to win, but the 20-point deduction handed down by the AFA ensured that their first taste of the second division would be fleeting. However, the club returned in 2019 and is currently occupying a play-off spot for promotion to the Primera División.
To their critics Riestra represent all that is rotten about the system of private ownership that is so hotly resisted in Argentine football. The club's effective owner is lawyer Víctor Stinfale, who in the past has defended the likes of infamous late bank robber Luis Alberto 'Gordo' Valor, a leader of the Boca Juniors Doce barra and Syrian arms dealer Monzer Al-Kassar, the 'Prince of Marbella.’
“I would defend Hitler if someone gave me a million dollars,” he famously said on one occasion.
Powers of persuasion
Thanks to Stinfale's financial clout and contacts Riestra soon snapped up sponsorship deals beyond the wildest dreams of their lower league rivals, as well as forging links with the likes of Maradona and Marcelo Tinelli. Less happily, accusations of undue influence in the AFA have dogged the club's climb up the pyramid, with the perception particularly following that shameful Comunicaciones episode being that with Stinfale pulling the strings they can make their own rules.
In breaking lockdown rules, Riestra are therefore likely to find few allies willing to plead their case, particularly those who stand to benefit should a point deduction (the most likely punishment) send them tumbling out of Primera play-off contention.
With the AFA, the Players' Union and their fellow clubs all furious at this flagrant breach of rules, Stinfale will need all his powers of legal persuasion to avoid the book being thrown at his side.