Buenos Aires football club Ferro Carril Oeste took its name from a railway line, but since 2002, this once grand institution has been a downbound train, struggling with debt in the lower divisions of Argentinian football. The team has just embarked on a make-or-break season in Argentina’s second division, Nacional B; a successful campaign would lay the foundation for the re-emergence of a former power, but failure could see the club virtually disappear. The ray of light in a generally gloomy scenario is the club’s fan base, who refuse to abandon the club to its fates. There is a word in Spanish that is used a lot by football fans when their club is struggling: aguante. It translates as “resist”, or “hang on” and is shouted from the terraces when a team is leading a match but under intense pressure from the opposition, or suffering a string of bad results. In the neighbourhood of Caballito, the club’s home, the cry of ‘aguante Ferro!’ has taken on even more importance – it has become an entreaty for survival.
Having just celebrated its 106th anniversary, Ferro’s current plight typifies the turmoil that besets football in general in Argentina – from the smallest of clubs right through to national team level. Poor planning, financial mismanagement and corruption are the iron chains weighing down a sport that, such is its universal popularity in Argentina, should be soaring in the clouds rather than flailing about in the mud as it so often finds itself.
Saturday was Ferro’s first home game of the season, following a good away draw in Jujuy with Gimnasia y Esgrima in week one. Fans who gathered on a chilly afternoon at the stadium, named after long-term vice-president Ricardo Etcheverry for the match against Aldosivi, maintained an air of cautious positivity, with a host of reinforcements having joined the squad in the off-season and some promising young prospects emerging from the youth team. Like the grey clouds which hang above the ground all afternoon, however, there’s a persistent fear that’s hard for many here to shake off, that of fading into obscurity in the lower divisions. It’s a fear that has lingered for many years now, but the talk in the antique wooden stands is generally upbeat; of securing a first home win in order to build up some momentum for the campaign ahead, and the return of prodigal son Facundo Sava, who started his career with Ferro back in 1993 before embarking on a successful career at clubs like Boca Juniors and Fulham.
The Green Machine
Many Argentinians over the age of 40 will go all misty-eyed if you mention the Ferro team of the early 1980s. This was the halcyon period of the team’s long history, culminating in an undefeated championship winning campaign in 1982, and another title in 1984. Coached by the legendary Timoteo Griguol, the ’82 team was described by the sports magazine ‘El Grafico’ as: “A well oiled machine which reached the summit with simplicity as its emblem... A resounding demonstration of how conviction and total unity can take a group to the very top.” To this day Ferro 82-84 is considered one of the greatest ever teams in Argentina’s top flight, and every Argentinian coach worth his salt has videos of their performances among his collection. Aside from that illustrious period, Ferro had been a consistent presence in the top flight since first gaining promotion in 1912. It remains the only club in Argentinian football which has maintained the same home ground throughout its entire history, a quaint 25,000-seater which, curiously, is situated at almost the exact geographical centre of Buenos Aires. It’s a club that has produced successful teams in a number of sports, such as volleyball, hockey and basketball, but the football team has always been the jewel in their crown, and Ferro’s raison d'être. An excellent youth system has shaped many fine players over the years, such as Hector Cuper, Roberto Ayala, and club legend Gerónimo “Cacho” Saccardi. That 1982 undefeated season is one of only four achieved in the history of Argentinian top flight football; the others were accomplished by San Lorenzo, River and Boca, all grandes of Argentinian soccer.
Since December 12, 2002, however, the club has been under administration. What that means, in effect, is that for almost eight years, Ferro, deeply in debt, has been without a club president or a board of directors. Club members have endured an uneasy partnership with Judge Margarita Braga, who was placed by court order in charge of all decision making. It’s an odd situation for a sporting club, but it gets worse. Ferro has until July, 2011 to pay off their remaining debts, totalling AR$3.5 million (about US$900 000), otherwise the club will have to sell off assets in a desperate attempt to save itself. They find themselves in such a position thanks to some seriously bad apples who were once in charge of running the club. Ex-president Marcelo Curso is currently being tried under the slow-moving Argentinian justice system for fraudulent management practices, while other former members of the board of directors are also under investigation for dodgy transfer dealings, bribery and corruption.
The precarious financial situation has naturally led to serious troubles on the field, and therein lies the real crisis for Ferro C.O.; the only way the club can fight its way back to financial stability is through success on the pitch, and ideally a return to the top division, yet unremitting debt repayments mean it is basically impossible to turn a profit, let alone build a team capable of mounting a solid campaign. In recent years, the team has been almost completely renovated after each campaign, with players sold off and various journeymen brought in to supplement the academy graduates who are deemed “ready” to step up into the first team. The Argentinian relegation system is based on average points garnered over the past three campaigns, and in the last few seasons, Ferro has been toying dangerously with relegation to the third-tier completion, the B Metropolitana. They came closest in 2007, when they drew two playoffs against Estudiandes de Buenos Aires to narrowly avoid the drop.
Hinchas and Jovenes
Even this subsistence, however, is only possible thanks to two factors; the support of fan groups and members, who prop the club up with their hard work and financial contributions, and the sale of academy talent. Every month, the only sector of the club as a whole that turns a profit is the senior football team, and the money brought in still falls about AR$30,000-50,000 short of what is needed to make debt repayments and keep up with the basic running expenses such as player wages. The difference is scraped together by fans, who run raffles, collect donations, and contribute from their own pockets. Alberto De Aloysio, for example, a 65-year-old lifetime member, not only sells raffle tickets at games, he also helps pay rent on the apartments that the club provides for its players. This may seem to be going above and beyond the call of duty for a fan, but for someone who loves the club, there is little choice, as De Aloysio explained to 'La Nacion'. “We have only one card, and we have to play it,” he said. “If Ferro goes up, we’ll be out of debt. If we’re relegated, we disappear.”
Ferro’s other vital source of income is player sales. Products of the youth system like tall centre-back Federico Fazio, who moved to Sevilla in Spain’s La Liga in 2007 and Riquelme-style playmaker Gonzalo Castellani, who was just sold to Villareal for €340,000 bring vital injections of funds to the club in its quest to claw its way out of debt. This year’s crop include attacking midfielder Claudio Aquino, striker Ezequiel Carballo and intelligent defensive midfielder Federico Lértora, all of whom started the game against Aldosivi on Saturday.
Despite being the most hyped of the three, Aquino had a poor game this time, and was replaced in the second period by the veteran Sava. Lértora, however, showed himself to be a composed and gritty number five, while it was Carballo who opened the scoring late in the first half with a cracking goal. Ferro’s other two goals in a deserved 3-1 victory came from another prodigal son, Oscar "Fatso" Altamirano, a man who has left the club twice only to return both times. Four points from two games is just the start that the faithful were hoping for, and for the first time in many years, the talk seems to be more about the battle for promotion than the fight against relegation. “We’ve gotten the reinforcements we needed,” said Altamirano after the game. “And it’s true, now we can start to think, or at least dream, about promotion. It would be something not just for us, but for the Ferro supporters who have done so much,” he said.
Not one of the players or staff interviewed after the match failed to mention the fans of the club and the what their apoyo (support) means to the team. Coach José María Bianco summed up the feelings of the team about this vitally important home win:
“There was a lot of emotion around the ground today, and we could feel it on the pitch,” he said. “It’s extremely important that we’ve gotten off to such a good start. Everyone knows the club is in a difficult situation, and there are people making a tremendous effort on a daily basis to keep the institution moving ahead. The only thing we can do is try to channel some of that energy towards solid performances on the pitch, so that those people can keep on with the great work they are doing.”
One gets the feeling that it’s this symbiotic relationship between club and fans that may just prove to be the key to salvation. It’s going to be an interesting season in Caballito.
Highlights of the match against Aldosivi