Imagine for a moment that upon restarting this year's Champions League competition, UEFA decided to disregard everything that had occurred prior to its suspension. All 32 teams that entered the group stage were suddenly reinstated, and the winner decided in a straight knockout competition as if the previous rounds had never existed. There would rightly be a huge outcry at such an unjust resolution, and the tournament itself would be brought into disrepute.
As absurd as it sounds, the above is nevertheless the path chosen by the AFA for the Primera Nacional competition, which nine games from the end of the 2020-21 season has been erased from memory in a move that has caused outrage through much of the Argentine second tier – as well as relief for more than a few clubs.
Effectively, the coming months – the exact format and schedule is yet to be announced – of the Nacional will be played out in complete ignorance of what transpired from September to March. All of the division's 32 participants, no matter how far down the table they languish, will enter a play-off competition for one of the two promotion places to the top flight on offer, with the clubs who finished higher up the table receiving scant competition of “sporting advantage” should their matches end in a tie-break.
To put it simply, Nueva Chicago, who in March were desperately fighting relegation to the Primera Metropolitana at the bottom of Group A, will have roughly the same chance of promotion as Atlanta, top of that group; an identical scenario to that of Gimnasia de Jujuy and San Martín de Tucumán in Group B – those teams having already been saved from the drop by AFA decree across the leagues in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
Unsurprisingly, news of this ramshackle arrangement was met with mixed reviews around the Nacional, largely depending on the club's position.
“It is perfect for all of us to play and participate this term,” Quilmes (12th in Group B) attacker Leandro González told Olé. “It's good that every team plays for promotion,” opined the coach of the group's eighth-placed Villa Dálmine, Felipe de la Riva. “This is better than we expected for us,” according to Marcelo Straccia, whose Independiente Rivadavia side languished in 13th in Group A prior to suspension.
Estudiantes de Buenos Aires defender Alexis Domínguez, meanwhile, slammed the ruling as “shameful”, while Ricardo Caruso Lombardi, now in charge of Belgrano, employed typically colourful language as he accused Tigre of influencing the AFA's judgement thanks to their links with Lower House Speaker Sergio Massa: “I don't like this invention... Massa has changed everything. Tigre have strengthened as if they were preparing for the Normandy landings.”
The most vehement opposition came from San Martín, who had already started legal proceedings against the AFA for denying them promotion as one of the two group leaders – a step Atlanta declined to take – at the moment the Nacional season was curtailed. “It's a shambles,” Club President Roberto Sagra fired, while maintaining the club's decision to fight the governing body in the Swiss-based Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).
While the lockdown has been harmful for top-tier sides like Independiente, as seen in last week's column, it has been catastrophic in the lower leagues. San Martín, promotion candidates back in March, have been forced to release no less than 18 players over the winter, and are without a coaching team after allowing Favio Orsi and his staff's contracts to lapse, although Orsi himself is willing to re-sign once the season resumes. Indeed, part of the AFA's reasoning in re-structuring the Nacional in this manner is to prevent the lower-ranked sides from enduring another six months without football, a measure that could push many towards bankruptcy and even closure.
That of course is a laudable goal, but it has led to the creation of a Frankenstein's monster of a projected competition that mocks the efforts of the Nacional's high-fliers before the game came shuddering to a halt. Every team deserves the opportunity to fight for promotion on the field, of course; but unless the AFA moves to reward those sides that sat at the group summits in defining the tournament's final format the result promises to be a serious slight against the division's legitimacy, and the worst possible outcome in an already extremely complex situation.