The long wait is over. After more than seven months of wistful stares at empty stadiums Argentine football is back, on none other than the 60th birthday of wayward legend and Gimnasia y Esgrima La Plata coach Diego Maradona. And to nobody's surprise, getting the Copa de la Liga Profesional off the ground at all proved a far from straightforward enterprise.
Thet time away has had a profound effect on every club, big and small, as demonstrated by a look at the transfer dealings ahead of this curtailed pseudo-season that kicks off with Maradona's charges hosting Patronato. The teams best placed on the balance sheet to tackle the pandemic and absence from the field approached the period with the philosophy less is more, keeping new arrivals to a minimum while cashing in a handful of key assets to stay in the black. River Plate, therefore, received healthy injections of fresh funds with the sales of star Colombian playmaker Juan Quintero to China and centre-back Lucas Martínez Quarta, who lines up for Fiorentina, while Racing Club were able to keep on an even keel thanks to Matías Zaracho's exit. Even financial powerhouses Boca Juniors sold more than they purchased over the last few months.
It is those clubs further down the table who most felt the impact, meaning that the coming weeks will see all sorts of unfamiliar players dotting team-sheets. Santiago del Estero's Central Córdoba led the way in the transfer merry go round with no less than 19 signings and 19 departures, the vast majority of which were either short-term loan or free transfers. The likes of Patronato, Arsenal and Unión all joined the Santiagueños in drafting in 10 or more recruits while almost across the board clubs moved to streamline their squads as far as humanly possible in order to cut costs – at Independiente, for example, after a winter plagued by acrimonious player conflicts, eight first-teamers were shed, in many cases against the club's wishes.
Those massive changes, the continuing Covid crisis, the curious format of this new competition – not actually a league but rather a complex cup tournament which will not count towards relegation calculations – and the nascent conflict with Fox Sports following the AFA's decision to strip the channel of broadcasting rights means that the off-field drama is likely to be the equal of anything that happens on the pitch. In River's case, the simple decision of which pitch proved enough of a dilemma.
The Millonario took advantage of the long months of inaction to renovate their stately Monumental abode, to date playing their 'home' fixtures in the Libertadores down the road in Avellaneda at Independiente's Libertadores de América. For this coming cup, however, they had another idea in mind: decamping to the River Camp training facility in Ezeiza. The plan did not please everyone: Liga Profesional Vice-President Cristian Malaspina quickly voiced his opposition on the grounds of 'image.'
“Article 28 of Organisation and Transmission speaks of a minimum [capacity] of 15,000 spectators to organise a Primera División match,” the director, rulebook in hand, argued, rather disingenuously given that, whether in the Bombonera or Chiqui Tapia's back garden no games will have fans in the Copa. “It is clear that the Liga's stance is to respect the rules. We feel that transmitting a game in a training paddock is not what we are looking for in this new age of Argentine football.”
Eventually River, who lest we forget ended the 2019-2020 season also at loggerheads with authorities after refusing to turn up for their Copa Superliga game, prevailed and will be able to play where they train, starting tomorrow with a clash against Banfield. Whether the new cup's image will withstand the decision remains to be seen; for now, the mini-controversy suggests that Covid-19 has done nothing to dim the passion and penchant for absurd disputes that makes Argentine football so unique.