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SPORTS | 01-06-2019 09:30

Tigre’s exploits create turning point for Argentina’s top flight

Tigre have been in sparkling form since coach Néstor Gorosito took over, finishing the Superliga with a flourish. And their fine performances may finally put an end to the controversial promedios system that decides relegation.

They are the team that, under the tutelage of perma-tanned, 1970s-haircut-sporting coach Néstor Gorosito, have become one of the best in Argentine over the last few months, finishing the Superliga season with a flourish before fighting to the final of the Copa Superliga. They are also condemned to play next year in the Nacional B – a fact that left CONMEBOL facing ridicule, put the Argentine Football Association (AFA) and Superliga at loggerheads and may also finally destroy the average points relegation system.

It is fair to say that 2019 has been, to put it mildly, an eventful year so far for everyone connected with Tigre.

El Matador have been in sparkling form over the course of the year. Mired in deep relegation trouble at the start of 2019 – having won just four of their first 18 matches – the arrival of Gorosito galvanised the team, which almost overnight began performing like title challengers.

Their last seven outings in the Superliga yielded five wins and two draws, a run that saw them shoot up the standings and take a commendable ninth place. It was not enough, however, to beat the drop. Despite finishing outside the relegation standings in each of the three campaigns quantified for the purposes of the average points table, Tigre went into their last match needing a win over River Plate and for rivals Patronato to drop points. River were indeed dispatched 3-2 in a thrilling match at the Monumental but Patronato’s simultaneous defeat of Argentinos Juniors sealed El Matador’s fate.

At that point, things became rather murky. Tigre were forced to give up their Copa Sudamericana place to Huracán as a consequence of relegation – an outcome that is long-standing in the Argentine top flight and relatively free of controversy. In the subsequent Copa Superliga, though, organised by the league itself, no such exception exists. With the promise of a Libertadores place to the winner, CONMEBOL watched on as Gorosito’s men downed Colón, Unión, champions Racing Club and thrashed Atlético Tucumán in the semi-final first leg to put a foot in next year’s competition. The South American governing body did not exactly cover itself in glory with its reaction to events.

WITHOUT PRECEDENT

On May 21, the organisation released a statement explicitly banning any team from outside its nation’s top flight from participating in either the Libertadores or Sudamericana in 2020, a move completely without precedent on a continental level. That communiqué could only have been aimed at Tigre, who – given final opponent Boca Juniors’ prior qualification to the Libertadores – would be assured of their own place by merely playing the final.

Incredibly, that resolution lasted barely 24 hours. The following day CONMEBOL backtracked entirely, in the process uncovering an internal struggle between Superliga authorities and the AFA, entirely unamused that their supposed partners had promised Copa qualification in a tournament outside the association’s remit. The upshot is that the prohibition on lower league teams has been suspended until 2021, leaving Tigre free to combine their efforts to make it back to Superliga with a shot at continental glory.

The big question of course, is whether or not the Buenos Aires club should be in the Nacional B in the first place. AFA President Claudio ‘Chiqui’ Tapia certainly believes they deserve to stay in the top flight.

“The Superliga has its autonomy. We made the decision to remove average points in the lower leagues to simplify football,” he told TyC Sports, in a rather disingenuous criticism that overlooked the fact that the AFA itself had introduced the feared ‘promedios’ and maintained them for over 30 years. “Now we have an exemplary case, but the rules were accepted in that way. In a sporting sense it is unfair.”

Such was the uproar caused by the Tigre case that 14 clubs signed a document calling for the immediate eradication of the average points relegation system in May. The initiative was perhaps inevitably watered down, with the most likely scenario being the phasing out of promedios over the next two seasons, coinciding with the reduction of Superliga clubs to a more manageable 20 or 22 which would allow the playing of a traditional-length season.

In the short-term at least, Tigre go into Sunday’s final in Córdoba at least on equal standing with Boca, who have shown little of the flair and goalscoring potential of their rivals as they have stumbled into this final. Players like exquisite veteran playmaker Walter Montillo, striker Federico González and unflappable holding midfielder Lucas Menossi are just a few of the stars who have come to the fore under Gorosito and who are sure to give Boca an uncomfortable evening, whatever the final result.

What may happen down the line is more difficult to predict. Relegated sides have a tendency to fall apart, a phenomenon which will likely only be accelerated by the brilliant form Tigre’s best players have shown since going down a division. But one thing is clear: El Matador’s Copa Superliga exploits will act as a turning-point for the Argentine top flight, which perhaps never before has seen the arbitrary and illogical nature of promedios exposed in quite so flagrant a manner.

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Dan Edwards

Dan Edwards

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