The great River Plate was relegated Sunday evening on a cold day in Buenos Aires, marking the end of an era. The most successful club domestically in Argentine football, with 33 league championships, has been ever-present in the country's Primera División since it was founded in 1901, until now.
The Primera División operates from August to June of the next year, divided into two separate championships known as the Apertura (Opening) and the Clausura (Closing). This is a Latin American footballing phenomenon that divides up the calendar year.
Relegation to and promotion from the second tier's Primera Nacional B is determined on an averaging system. Over three years (six championships), the two clubs out of the twenty members who have the worst points average are automatically relegated. The next two worst, 17th and 18th in the collated table, are pitted against the third and fourth best, on average, from Nacional B in a two-legged playoff.
River Plate's destiny was to be decided against Belgrano. The side from Córdoba entered the playoff with just one defeat in 16, compared to River Plate's winless sequence of seven.
The first leg was played out in front of a packed Estadio Gigante de Alberdi, where the fans created an intimidating atmosphere to greet their illustrious opposition. This should have been enough to wake River Plate's players to the reality of the dangerous scenario of being responsible for the club's first relegation in its history.
They failed to heed this warning as the Piratas shocked Los Millonarios 2-0 with goals from Cesar Mansanelli and Cesar Pereyra. After the second goal, crazy scenes unraveled. River Plate was in the midst of one of its more promising attacks when the unthinkable happened, or at least, it should be unthinkable, but it has become a common occurrence over the years in Argentina.
River Plate's fans (if you can call them that) halted action with supposedly the best solution they could conjure up to alter their club's pathetic performance—they invaded the pitch.
Some had cut through the metal fence that stood between them and the pitch; others had just climbed over it. They remonstrated in the faces of some of the players, pushing and shoving them, as if they had not been trying all along and this would suddenly prompt them in to playing well.
It did little to change the pattern of play. River Plate huffed and puffed and Belgrano lurked dangerously, ready to pounce on the counter attack with what surely would have been a fatal third goal. It finished 2-0 and all that lied between River Plate and its first relegation ever was 90 minutes.
The situation was clear. Anything but a winning margin of two goals would see the club plummet into the abyss. Two crucial goals would be enough as in the event of a tie on aggregate, River Plate would be saved by the tie-breaking advantage held by all Primera División clubs.
The problem was, and always has been, where do the goals come from for River Plate? The Buenos Aires club cannot have been optimistic of turning its fortunes around. After all, a two goal margin of victory had only happened twice in the past two championships: once in this year's Clausura, going 2-0 against Huracán, and the time before in 2010's Apertura, going 4-1 away to Lanús.
When you consider those two results came over a period of 45 matches (including Sunday's game) since May 2010, you begin to understand the appalling plight that River Plate has been on for a long time. Two managers have led the club over this period, Ángel Cappa and Juan José López.
Responsibility should not lie solely with the two much maligned managers and their abject players, but the iconic president Daniel Passarella who has overseen this turbulent time and failed to enforce positive change.
Whether that be by managerial appointments, player recruitment (or lack of). He could even have made a rallying cry to the players, as he did in the days before Sunday's game. Sorry Daniel, but it is all too little, too late. River Plate's fans will despair at the cowardice Passarella has shown during his tenure in failing to react sooner. After all, this is a legend who captained the national side to World Cup glory in 1978.
Sunday's game was the same old story for River Plate. The fans had the naivety to think that a player they have often castigated and not supported consistently, Mariano Pavone, could save them, when he scored the first goal to give River Plate the lead.
Comical defending, another trait in this inept side, gifted Belgrano an equalizer as Guillermo Farré clinically finished to start the celebrations for the away fans and the tears for the home crowd.
There was more, though. Pavone spurned a penalty in to the grateful arms of the superb Juan Carlos Olave. The match was then effectively suspended, but the result stands, it would seem. The referee ended proceedings on the 88th minute due to the protests from the crowd. These foolish fans had taken away any slim chance River Plate had of survival.
The frustration and the emotions came out from the home support once the club's fate was confirmed. The players were in floods of tears, in particular academy graduate goalkeeper Juan Pablo Carrizo, who has endured a terrible season personally due to high profile errors.
Violence swelled among the fans, as missiles hailed down from the stands. Water cannons failed to deter the fans, in fact it just fueled the thousands to protest in a violent manner. The night had just begun but a thought went to the Belgrano fans, in cold conditions, who were kept inside the stadium until it was safe to leave.
2,200 police officers struggled to contain what had now become a war zone. From the Monumental stadium and later to the suburb of Núñez, ugly scenes escalated as reports claimed immeasurable acts of vandalism, injuries to police officers and fans alike and even unconfirmed reports that a fan had died.
The future looks bleak for River Plate and now the Argentine Football Association (AFA) must clear up the mess that will now leaves a dark cloud over next month's showpiece international tournament, the Copa America.
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