The closing championship of the 2008-09 season is only a few weeks old but it has already thrown up a series of surprises.
Eric Weil in Buenos Aires
The tournament began with fewer player changes than in previous years, as clubs stuck with their existing squads. With the status quo preserved, many pundits predicted that things would carry on pretty much as before. But far from it.
There have been some curious results and after just three rounds, no team was left with a 100 per cent record. Indeed, the three clubs which played off for the opening championship title – Boca Juniors, San Lorenzo and Tigre – had only picked up six points out of a possible 27, while River Plate, who finished bottom of the opening championship took an early lead, along with Newell’s Old Boys, Colon and Godoy Cruz.
River Plate are a mystery. They performed so badly in the last tournament despite having roughly the same personnel as in the 2008 closing championship, which they won.
For the 2009 closing championship, River did not sell their best players and added striker Cristian Fabbiani and former international midfielder Marcelo Gallardo, now aged 32, who is back at his first club after a disappointing spell in Major League Soccer.
Fabbiani, who is nicknamed “Ogre” because of a similarity to the cartoon character Shrek, has been the dominant personality of the new campaign and is already a cult figure. That is despite having hardly played and having been told to lose some of his 100kg weight.
Even before he played Fabbiani was looked upon as the team’s saviour and at matches fans turn up with masks of Shrek. In River’s third match, he came on for the last half hour and most media pointed out that he served up the pass for the second goal.
Fabbiani had problems at previous clubs. At Newell’s Old Boys, where players were owed several months’ pay, they paid him every penny owed in a bid to get him to sign a new contract, but he took the money anyway and left. On his way to sign for Velez Sarsfield, he changed his mind and went to River Plate (although his agent may have been largely responsible for the change of heart).
Despite the early good form of Fabbiani, River Plate fans continue to call for the return of their idol, Ariel Ortega, now 34, who has been suffering from alcohol problems and was loaned out to a second division club, where he has hardly shone.
Despite the early season surprises, one thing has not changed. Visiting fans can still not go to lower division matches and can only travel in limited numbers to games in the top division. It’s a poor way to stop hooliganism and the rule has been much abused.
Both Rosario clubs, Newell’s and Central, have been attempting to break the powerful grip of hooligan gangs and have also been facing up to the problems left outgoing club presidents. At Newell’s, former president Eduardo Lopez left them with a debt of more than £6million.
Hooligan gangs kept Lopez in power at Newell’s for 14 years, exerting their influence to ensure that Lopez avoided elections. When he finally stood – and lost – an election, they left the club a wreck, stealing everything they could take. Not content, they returned to the club a few weeks later to wreck everything which members had voluntarily repaired.