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SPORTS | 06-03-2020 11:41

Not even a River-Boca title showdown will save the Superliga

At breakneck speed and with an outrageous ad hoc rule change thrown in for good measure, the Superliga's days appear to be numbered.

Fifteen years have passed since River Plate and Boca Juniors went head-to-head for the title on the final day of a Primera season. The Millo took the honours back in 2004 and appear to be in the driving seat to clinch the crown today, although the rejuvenated Xeneize would like nothing better than to deny their arch-rivals glory and prolong their six-year domestic drought for a while longer.

It is the kind of scenario every league organiser dreams about as a decider. The Superliga authorities, then, might allow themselves a glass of champagne as River visit Atlético Tucumán and Boca welcome the Diego Maradona Gimnasia circus to the Bombonera – even if, in an extraordinary power play from the clubs and newly pugnacious AFA, they appear resigned to the fact that after just three editions this looks set to be the last top-flight season disputed under that name.

Back in January this column highlighted the tensions between clubs, the AFA and Superliga, which surged in an absurd spat over the scheduling of fixtures during Argentina's Pre-Olympic qualifying tournament. The signs were already there that the conflict went deeper, that, shorn of political support in the national government with Mauricio Macri gone, the Superliga was facing just the opening salvo of a nascent war. 

Now, at breakneck speed and with an outrageous ad hoc rule change thrown in for good measure, its days appear to be numbered.

Sudden, brazen

The modification in question is so sudden, so brazen that it is hard to lend any other interpretation than as another challenge to the beleaguered league chiefs. 

An AFA-clubs summit this week deemed that no longer would three clubs be relegated to the Primera Nacional: instead, just two would go down, with the third disputing a play-off against a team from the second tier and thus maintaining 24 teams in the top flight. Ostensibly the move is to keep an even number of participants in 2020-2021; a weak argument given that it was the clubs themselves that twisted Superliga's arm in order to allow only three teams to go down. 

This change, pushed through with two-thirds of the season already competed (including that most curious of appendages, the Copa Superliga) will be presented to Superliga as a fait accompli, already agreed by the clubs – and those supposedly in charge will have to like it or lump it.

If the vast majority of top division teams were capable of attacking on the field with anything like the ferocity their directors show in meetings, the league would be a far more exciting affair. Next on the AFA-club hitlist is pay TV, the premium packages that keep almost all games off free-to-air and even cable screens. Three of the 12 weekly fixtures to begin with would move back to the state-owned and universal TV Pública, while the league itself will reinvent itself under the guise of a new 'Liga Profesional' controlled once more by the AFA, just three years after Superliga burst onto the scene promising a slick, modern and, most importantly, wealthy top flight.

Audacious coup

While those in charge at Viamonte assure they have the numbers for this audacious coup, many are already talking of Superliga in the past tense. Perhaps nowhere else can the herd mentality of the clubs both in sanctioning the new system in 2017 and in its imminent dismantling be better summed up than from the words of Nicolás Russo, the Lanús president and one of those who has pushed hardest for a return to the AFA since December. 

“The Superliga regulations were very demanding, and most of us in the clubs approved it without reading it,” he told Radio La Red on Wednesday, surprising next to nobody with the bombshell. 

From bloating the top flight with the entrance of 10 more teams, Julio Grondona's last innovation, to accepting a new governing body and then jettisoning it, one gets the impression that most big decisions taken by club presidents do indeed involve a blindfold, a closed envelope and dire threats against pushing against the groupthink.

For both River and Boca focus remains wholly on footballing matters, with the chance to get one over on their eternal enemies only sweetening the prize of being crowned champions of Argentina. Even as the eventual winner parades the trophy at the Obelisco, however, a brave new world will be forming below the surfaces at exclusive breakfasts and barbecues – or, perhaps to put it more aptly, a return to a normality that thanks to such endless tinkerings as this latest relegation switch or the very proposal to expand the Primera to 30 teams back in 2015, was never really such.

Dan Edwards

Dan Edwards

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