River Plate have recovered from the ignominy of 2011's relegation and now they are looking at continental glory.
It begins with a haunting memory – a trauma. A memory that serves as the demonic gateway back to that day.
The pitch is on fire. Police sirens whirl in the air. Water cannon and tear gas spray down on smouldering terraces. In the centre circle eleven River Plate footballers huddle for safety from their own supporters.
It is post-Heroic football. As the River Plate players shield themselves defensively from hurled projectiles in the centre circle, it becomes clear that these are fallen idols. These are the eleven men who will forever be remembered as having disgraced River Plate Football Club.
It is the 27th of June 2011. A date that triggers the anguish of River Plate fans. A painful chronological rupture in their self-identification with River as a team of distinction- of class. River Plate has just been relegated to ‘La B’, the Argentine Second Division for the first time in the club’s 110 year history. Riots erupt inside and outside the stadium. Two thousand riot police are called in; eighty-nine fans are injured; one is reported dead.
It is more than a date. As the Buenos Aires press reflects, it is the borrón, the original sin, the new reference point that stains the club’s identity. It is seen in quasi-theological terms as the fall: the 2011 team symbolising the antithesis to the grace of River Plate’s 1940’s ‘La Maquina’ or the Machine, the latter famed for its dynamic total football and invention of the false no. 9 position.
The trauma takes on spectral qualities, permeating every aspect of River’s once pure identity. As fans walk in the streets of Núñez- the wealthy neighbourhood of Buenos Aires in which River Plate is based – they begin to notice freshly sprayed graffiti on walls.
‘¡RiBer!’, the graffiti cries, with rival fans replacing the V in the team’s name with the B of the second division to reaffirm the humiliation. Soon a report emerges that Boca Juniors fans have spray-painted graffiti on River’s Stadium, El Monumental. As River fans arrive to view the damage, they find that the club’s logo has been painted over with a new one. It no longer reads C.A.R.P.- Club Atlético River Plate- but C.A.P.B., Club Atlético Primera B.
To add insult to injury Boca Junior fans mail maps of regional Argentinian provinces to River fans, to emphasize to the latter that they will now be playing against unheard of teams from the hinterland.
But the worst comes in a cup match between Boca Juniors and River Plate. As the rivals spar on the pitch, overhead a whirring sound is audible. The players look up and see a drone attached to which is a white bed sheet cut in the shape of a phantom. As the phantom emerges through the air, it becomes clear that emblazoned on its ghostly torso is a red B. It is the ‘phantom of the B’ that hovers ever over River’s heads. And up in the stands, it suddenly becomes noticeable that Boca supporters are also donning phantasmal bed sheets- the red B is everywhere. There is no escape.
The disenchantment hits River Plate fans hard: the Argentine national association for psychiatry reports a soaring use of its mental health help lines by River fans, as well as a huge increase in prescriptions of anti-depressants. It is a phenomenon that becomes known as the ‘River de la B’ effect, the sporting equivalent of a crisis of the mind. For River Plate fans the relegation is an epochal event- it represents the disenchantment of their world, the loss of illusions of glory and triumph.
It is now four years later, July of 2015, and River Plate fans find themselves standing outside of El Monumental. It is a cold overcast day, but that does not deter them as they pass around cups of coffee among each other. They are here for a coronation. They have been waiting for this moment; the return of River in the Heroic mode.
Out of the bowels of the stadium, where a press conference announcing his signing has just been held, steps a small figure- still fresh-faced but with noticeably harrowed eyes. He holds up a half nervous arm to the fans. And they reciprocate, signing ‘Savioooooola!’ ‘Savioooola!’
Javier Saviola, the nippy striker and idol of River Plate fans, has returned to the club. More than a decade has passed since Saviola last pulled on the club’s shirt as a nineteen year old with a cherub face but devilish speed. And both Saviola and River Plate have changed almost unrecognisably since that last encounter.
Saviola no longer carries the magical aura that defined his younger, teenage self. He was a player that at eighteen won Argentina’s Golden Boot at the same as Maradona. But after leaving River in 2001 for Europe, his career gradually hit the rocks as he ended up shipping from club to club in search of game time.
And River, despite being promoted back to the Primera in 2012 and beating Boca to the national title in 2014, still carry the weight of the past on their shoulders. The self-assured nature of the club is gone. The new club President Rodolfo D’Onofrio feels a need to explain and justify his decisions to the press and fans that previous presidents did not.
But it is not despite of but rather because of these recent failures that River and Saviola are so content to find each other gain.
Á la recherche du temps perdu. In Search of Lost Time.
For both Saviola and River Plate, the reunion is motivated by the fantasy of a return to an idyllic, pre-blemished past. Saviola has expressed his desire to be cherished once again in a stadium that considers him to be one of their own. He speaks repeatedly to the press of returning to his younger self- as though the nineteen-year old version of his self is still there, waiting for him on the pitch.
For River the signing also offers the chance to find a previous self, one that has seemed increasingly distant in light of the trauma of 2011. It is the River Club of the late nineties, when fresh off the back of a Copa Libertadories victory in 1996 and armed with a young sensation in Javier Saviola, there was a real sense of River being in the ascendance at the club.
It as if River have bought Saviola for the illusion it entails in itself. As though they can cut out the traumatic years after 2011 by sewing together the club’s 1998 and 2015 fortunes with the string of Saviola.
Certainly, Saviola’s signing does not make sense in purely football terms. Though River have used a counterattacking 4-4-2 in recent weeks with the pacey Uruguayan Rodrigo Mora complementing the target man Téofilo Gutierrez, as opposed to the possession based 4-3-2-1 of earlier months in which Gutierrez was the lone striker, there is little possibility of Saviola replacing Mora in the team.
Firstly because Saviola has lost his pace. Second because Saviola’s work ethic is famously bad, a feature that led to Verona benching him last season in favour of academy players and which will certainly not boost his prospect in Marcelo Gallardo’s high-pressing aggressive system.
The third reason is because River have already signed a younger version of Saviola to compete with Mora. Tabaré Viudez has signed from Kasimpasa in Turkey, after having been managed by River manager Gallardo at his previous club Nacional in Uruguay. He is by most reports a craque, the South American footballing terminology for a little star or magician.
But evidence that River’s transfer strategy is being driven by a yearning for the past’s better terms is not limited to the signing of Saviola. The club has also resigned Lucho González, the midfield maestro of River 2002-2005 seasons who later went on to a successful European career at Porto and Marseille, from Qatari Second Division club Al-Rayyan. González is thirty-four years old, has not played in months and struggled often to make the Al-Rayyan team.
He is also unlikely to be able to adapt to the ‘doble cinco’ or double pivot used by Gallardo’s team in recent months, in which the central midfields Kranevitter and Ponzio have been asked to press aggressively against the opposition’s centre backs.
And earlier this season River also brought in club idol Pablo Aimar at the age of thirty five. For the twenty or so games for which he has been available this season, Aimar has only played eighteen minutes. With the addition of Nicolás Bertolo, one of the best playmakers in the Argentine division at his previous club Banfield and only twenty nine, neither Aimar or González look likely to make the first eleven.
All of which makes these transfers seem more understandable as part of club president’s Rodolfo D’Onofrio vision for the club. Replacing the disgraced president Daniel Passarella, who presided over the relegation of the club, D’Onofrio promised to re-echant the club, to make the stadium a site of dreams and illusion once again.
His strategy has been twofold. First, as described, signing club legends. But second, and more significantly, by making the Copa Libertadores- the South American equivalent of the Champions League- River Plate’s top priority.
D’Onofrio’s first act as president was to replace one fantasy with another. In his first speech to club fans, he emphasized to supporters that they must abandon the illusion that the stain of ‘La B’, of relegation, could ever be removed from the club’s history. Rather than remove the stain, D’Onofrio noted, River should rather add new triumphs. A historical trough could only be replaced with a historical peak.
And D’Onofrio is living up to his word: River in 2015 are re-enchanted. On the verge of something historic. The Big Won.
Despite returning immediately to the Primera in 2012 and winning the title over Boca in 2014, the club yearns for something more singular to dull the memory of 2011: a Libertadores triumph.
It is a trophy that obsesses River, in a complex similar to Real Madrid’s fixation with ‘La Décima.’ The Libertadores entails international recognition. If domestic achievements and titles are always subject to the polemical swipes of rivals, with each club endorsing revisionist accounts of their rivals successes as being underwritten by ‘bribed referees’ or ‘institutional corruption,’ the Libertadores offers international arbitration of claims to fame. If you win the Libertadores, beating South America’s finest en route, you are immune to reproach.
But it is also a trophy that River have only won twice in their history- a measly total compared to Independiente’s seven, Boca’s six and Estudiantes’ four. River have a reputation for wilting in the Libertadores despite often having arguably the strongest squad in the competition, with past successes in achieving improbable eliminations from the tournament earning River the nickname “Las Gallinas”, the chickens.
This year feels different however. As though some kind of transcendental force, some crest of history is carrying River toward the title.
River are in the Libertadores semifinals, and having confronted and overturned their historical tendency to crumble when the tough gets going with huge victories over rivals Boca and the Brazilian heavyweights Cruzeiro, there is now a feeling of inevitability about a River triumph.
First is the symmetry of it all. The team is managed by Gallardo, who as a player was the central figure in leading River to their 1996 Libertadores triumph. Day after day the Argentine football dailies Clarín and Olé print pictures of Gallardo holding aloft the trophy in 1996 with the caption reading: ‘And 2015?’ It has also not gone unnoticed that this season’s home shirt is an exact replica of the one worn in 1996. Call it hope or self-delusion, but there is a feeling that history is coming full circle.
Second, the 2015 River team is one that is drawing analogies to the finest squads in the club’s history. Gallardo has created a team that has shown that it can do it all: press or sit back, play it short or long, rotate positions fluidly or organize itself rigidly. It is a team able to don different masks according to the opposition. While playing the first few months of the season with a magisterial, Barcelona-esque 4-3-1-2 system in which Matías Kranevitter dictated play from deep, the team has adopted a diametrically opposite identity in recent weeks, playing a direct counter-attacking 4-4-2 reminiscent of Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid.
The team recently equaled the club record of matches without defeat set by the legendary ‘Maquina’ team of the 1940’s, going unbeaten for over thirty games. And this has gone unnoticed in the press. There is talk of ‘La Maquina 2’ with current players such as Sebatián Driussi and Ariel Rojas being compared to the Maquina’s Ángel Labruna and Juan Carlos Muñoz.
It is not surprising then that one word serves as the ever-increasing refrain in journalistic coverage of the team: the word illusion.
Referring to the term in the positive sense of feeling enchanted and deeply entranced with life, Gallardo has spoken of this season as the most beautiful illusion he has ever lived. Surrounding the club there is a feeling of living through thickened history, as though the present is a momentous one to be eternalized for years to come.
A glorious present is also leading to a re-interpretation of the once traumatic past. For the truth is that the 27th of June 2011 no longer serves as a traumatic category for supporters of the club. Rather it is increasingly seen as a sad but necessary moment of renewal and rebirth from which the current group of players has emerged.
Indicative of this is that one the most recent anniversary of the relegation, a day that has traditionally seen River’s rivals Boca hold street parties celebrating the demise of their counterparts from Nuñez, River fans joined in the celebration. For after already winning two international trophies this season in the form of the Recopa and the Copa Sudamericana, River feel like the tables have turned and it is they who are on the way up, with Boca on the way down.
Adding to the sense of inevitability is that up next River face the minnows of Guarani from Paraguay, a match that the Buenos Aires outfit is expected to win comfortably. And then it is the final.
The official club discourse is that the club is taking one game at a time, that feet remain firmly planted on the ground. But the reality is that the imagination long ago bolted from the confines of caution, and that River Plate has moved from phantasm to fantasy.
By Alexander Shea
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona