When is a cup not a cup? Apparently, when the Liga Profesional de Argentina says so. The body responsible for organising the top flight revealed during Tuesday's draw that despite its rather misleading name, the Copa Liga Profesional, which will run during the first half of 2022, would in fact be nothing of the sort.
“This competition is a league, it is called Copa because of the format, but it counts as a league,” Cristian Malaspina, president of Argentinos Juniors and vice-president of the Liga Profesional, confirmed during an interview with TyC Sports. “We think that this format is here to stay, at least until the team issue is normalised. The two-zone competition is very attractive.”
Unlike Colón, then, who were awarded a cup victory by virtue of taking down Racing Club in the 2021 Copa final, whichever of the 28 teams that currently make up the first division prevails in May's decider will be able to proclaim themselves national champions, at least until the next league season begins a few months down the line. Aside from that surprise change, and a last-minute postponement of the season's beginning to February 11, the rest of the Copa will look mostly familiar: each club will play the other 13 sides in their group once, plus a further interzonal 'derby' round – Boca vs River, Racing vs Independiente, Newell's vs Central, Aldosivi vs Patronato and the rest of Argentina's famous clásicos – before four from each group progress to a direct-elimination play-off round.
As for the draw itself, it proved a rather shadowy affair. There was no live transmission, just a short video released by the Liga Profesional showing most of the key elements for any such event: shiny black balls nestled in a bowl; an exterior shot of the Hilton hotel; the few officials present undergoing a nasal swab, while others watched on via Zoom; and, as quick as a flash, a flurry of raised papers, two complete groups and a fixture list. For those of us who loathe the false pageantry and mystique of what is in essence an extremely dull bureaucratic exercise this dedication to speed and efficiency was more than welcome, but it did leave the more suspicious-minded – and in the world of Argentine football there are plenty, often with some justification – wondering just how above-board the mysterious draw really was.
Along with the television cameras, there was another conspicuous absence on Tuesday. Liga president Marcelo Tinelli was ambushed in a Christmas Eve attempted palace coup when 15 top-flight clubs signed a letter requesting his removal from the post, a gambit that the media mogul described as “institutional destabilisation” and a “low blow.”
The San Lorenzo chief has now bowed to the inevitable, though, leaving Malaspina – one of the club chiefs to sign the resignation request – to face the press after the draw and then officially setting elections for March 31. “I acted responsibly, I've been painted as the bad guy in the story by the people who ran the Liga presidency,” Malaspina added. “Something came up which had to be corrected, as vice-president it was up to me... a bad situation which most of the clubs were suffering from has been resolved.”
Long tipped as the natural future head of Argentine football, Tinelli's relationship with the sport has instead become a long comedy of errors. From his frustration at missing out on the AFA presidency by way of 2014's infamous, farcical 38-38 draw to the thwarting of his most recent bid to wrest control from Claudio Tapia last year by way of a legal technicality and now this ignominious end, the businessman appears to have no route left to the top – while even in San Lorenzo, where he is currently on licence as president, the club's desperate financial situation and malaise on the field mean that he would barely be more unpopular there were he to don a Huracán shirt and march around Boedo singing “what neighbourhood are you from?” This after all is a cut-throat business, and while (just like in politics) failure does not necessarily preclude a comeback, there is no doubt that this round has seen Tinelli suffer a resounding, almost decisive defeat in the eternal game of football power politics.