Here is a list of the last 8 winners of the Argentinian Primera Division:
Apertura 2006-07: Estudiantes
Clausura 2006-07: San Lorenzo
Apertura 2007-08: Lanus
Clausura 2007-08: River Plate
Apertura 2008-09: Boca Juniors
Clausura 2008-09: Velez Sarsfield
Apertura 2009-10: Banfield
Clausura 2009-10: Argentinos Juniors
Anything strike you as strange? Perhaps the fact that there has been a different winner in each of the past eight seasons? It’s truly an astounding statistic, and one that you are unlikely to see repeated in many leagues around the world, at any point in history. Equally surprising, considering the precedents in Argentinian football, is that there have only been three titles that have gone to one of the ‘big five’ clubs. It is certainly refreshing to have so many different winners, but at the same time, looking back over that four-year period, it’s hard to remember any real standout teams.
Estudiantes, driven by talisman Juan Sebastian Veron, has been a consistent force since they beat a very good Boca Juniors team in a playoff for the 2006-07 Apertura, but surprisingly they have not managed to pick up another championship in the intervening years (although they did win the Copa Libertadores in 2009). Boca and River’s solitary wins over the period seemed more like blips in a period of mediocrity, or even decline. That may be a little unfair on Boca, who won the Libertadores in 2007 and had been consistently near the top of the table leading up to their Apertura victory in 2008-09, but they have fallen away sharply since, and at no stage was it truly a classic Boca Juniors team. Otherwise, the only side that sticks in the memory is the highly entertaining tiki-taka Huracan team that was pipped to the post by a more solid Velez outfit in the 2008-09 Clausura, then promptly broken up and sent to the far ends of the universe. In short, it’s been great to see some different names on the winner’s board, but in recent seasons, it sometimes seems that the various contenders just keep on shooting themselves in the foot until one team is left to sheepishly claim the title as everyone else hops about in agony.
The reasons for this inconsistency from one tournament to the next could take up a whole other article, but boiled down, the major factors are the highly volatile transfer market, the Copa Libertadores, and the poor run of form of the two giants of Argentinian football. The first factor is the perennial affliction of the South American game. As soon as a team produces a generation of talented individuals who gel together as a solid unit, rather than building a dynasty for the future, they are in fact just inviting richer European clubs to feast at their table. The talent is usually shot off to the Old Continent in the blink of an eye, and the funds garnered tend to syphoned off toward the repayment of old debts and other, vaguer destinations. Meanwhile, the Copa Libertadores, and to a lesser extend the Copa Sudamericana, further ensure teams have a hard time backing up after a championship win. The glory of claiming a continental title, and having a shot at the European champions in the Club World Cup is too great to resist, and teams tend to focus their limited resources into those competitions, at the expense of defending their Primera Division crown. The same problem has been noted often enough in Europe, with the Champions League being the ultimate goal of many clubs, but the bigger teams there now have the ability to build squads large enough to compete on several fronts, whereas financial constraints in South America make this almost impossible. Finally, the fact that neither River nor Boca has won the title more than once in recent years goes a long way to explaining such an array of different champions. In the past, you could usually rely on one or both of those behemoths to be battling it out at the top of the table, but recently this has not been the case. So, whereas before it took a really special team to knock one of those two off their perch, in the last few years it has often just been a matter of outlasting other, less prestigious rivals, thus allowing teams like Lanus and Banfield to taste glory for the first time in their long histories.
Combine all this with the fact that the season is effectively split into two sprints, the Apertura and Clausura, consisting of less than 20 matches, and you can see how easy it is, relative to many other leagues, for a team to have a good run of form and end up being in the mix for the championship.
What does that mean for the coming Apertura? It means it’s bloody hard to pick a winner. The Clausura’s surprise champions were Argentinos Juniors, but they were pushed all the way by Independiente, Estudiantes and Godoy Cruz. Argentinos will find it very difficult to claim back to back titles, for many of the reasons already mentioned above. For that reason, look to one of the trailing pack, or a well-organised Velez Sarsfield to emerge just in front of the other contenders after a helter skelter 19 rounds of football. Argentinian football; it’s always unpredictable and often chaotic. And that, of course, is why we love it.
Players to Watch
Nicolas Otamendi -- Before the World Cup this year, this guy was widely acknowledged as a rising star of the Primera Division. A gritty central defender who was a vital part of Velez’s solid backline last season, it was even reported that Otamendi was already on his way to A.C. Milan. Then at the Big Party in South Africa, Otamendi found himself drafted into Diego Maradona’s starting line up, where he performed excellently against Greece and Mexico. It all came apart quite spectacularly, though, against Germany, where Otamendi, playing out of position at right back, had one worst games you are likely to see from anybody, ever at a World Cup. As we go to press, the 22-year-old is still at Velez. Should he remain there for the entire season, he is likely to be playing out of his skin to convince all and sundry that that match against Germany was a one off. Opposition forwards beware.
Sebastian Blanco – It’s hard to understand how this former AFW Rising Star has not yet been snapped up by a bigger club, but with the Apertura kicking off in a couple of days, Lanus are still the lucky ones with the visionary playmaker on their books. As he gains experience, he is becoming ever more influential, and this season he promises to dominate.
Juan Iturbe – Despite being tugged at by some big European names, as well as his former club, Cerro, who claim he is still under contract with them, this Paraguayan wunderkind is currently training with Quilmes, and looks set on starting the season with them. Known as the ‘Guarani Messi ‘, he could potentially play for either Paraguay or Argentina in the future. If he does manage to play a season in the Primera Division, it will be fascinating to see if he lives up to the hype surrounding him.
We were leaning towards the consistently good Velez, but don't be surprised if, keeping within the anarchic spirit of things, there is a 9th winner in as many seasons.
Lucas Viatri – Expect Boca Juniors goal-getter Martin Palermo to finally begin to fade this year (he is 36 after all), and this talented youngster seems ready to step out of his shadow. He only scored 4 goals in the last Clausura, but he should double or triple that this time around. Although not the sharpest tool in the shed, Viatri is a natural, hulking striker. He is also a convicted crim. He is currently serving probation for armed robbery. How colourful!
River and Boca
A special mention goes to Tweedledum and Tweedledee, who will once again be looking to ‘rebuild’.
In reality, Boca may have had a few bad seasons, but the structure of the club remains sound, and they should be back fighting for the title sometime soon. Talk of Riquelme’s contract persists, but whether he signs or not, the team on the whole still appears a little stale. They should finish in the top third of the table, but will not be the awesome force they once were until the whole Riquelme-Palermo generation toddle off into the sunset, and younger talents are allowed to step into the limelight.
River, after several years of real turmoil, go into this Apertura under a genuine threat of relegation. However, they finally seem to have constructed a decent team in the offseason, and they should avoid such a shameful fate quite comfortably. Mid-table mediocrity may not seem like a fitting ambition for a club with such a rich history, but for now it should suffice. They too, will be back, so the ‘smaller’ teams should enjoy their time in the sun while they can.