Moments before the superclasico in Buenos Aires in September, River Plate supporters at El Monumental unveiled a vast mosaic of the flag of Japan. The flag and the club’s matching
colours of red and white were a convenient coincidence.

The River-Boca Juniors fixture has long failed to live up to its international billing in terms of quality, but the atmosphere still attracts attention from around the world. And yet despite the fireworks, the mosaic and the chants, the game lacked the tension that characterises these matches. River’s priority was elsewhere.

Boca Juniors won the league game 1-0 and climbed to the top of the table, prompting their striker Carlos Tevez to say afterwards: “Things are back to normal.”

River president Rodolfo D’Onofrio was quick to respond: “Things are not normal because we can’t get the 20,000 tickets we need for Japan.”

River are focusing on the Club World Cup in December and there is a euphoria at the club that not even losing the superclasico can dampen.

The club known as “the Millionaires” – due to the outlay on players in the 1930s, not the wealthy neighbourhood where the club is based – recently ended a 17-year debt to its supporters.

River Plate Libertadores

River Plate celebrate their 2015 Libertadores Cup triumph.

In August, River Plate lifted the Libertadores Cup for the third time in the club’s history, defeating Mexican side Tigres. They had also won the Sudamericana Cup and the South America Super Cup months earlier, meaning the club currently boasts an impressive full house of continental titles.

“We won more than we expected,” sports director Enzo Francescoli admitted to La Nacion. “The idea was to win one title per year.”

The Uruguayan, who was so admired as a player that Zinedine Zidane named his son after him, arrived as sports director in 2013 after club presidential elections. The new administration won the 2014 league title and the Argentina Super Cup under coach Ramon Diaz. But after Diaz suddenly quit, Francescoli opted for one-time attacking midfielder Marcelo Gallardo as his replacement after sounding out Gerardo Martino.

“River has very successful cases of former players returning as coach to the club,” says vice-president Matias Patanian. “It is a tradition at our club.”

Now in his late 30s, Gallardo was a stylish playmaker who grew up at River and formed part of the generation of youth-team players – along with Hernan Crespo, Ariel Ortega and Matias Almeyda – that enjoyed great success in the 1990s. After retiring, he had a short spell as a coach in Uruguay with Nacional, staying there long enough to win the league title. But in the 13 months since returning to River as coach, he has transformed the club, guiding the team to three major international trophies.

“There is nothing more beautiful than getting used to winning,” Gallardo said in Japan after his team won yet another piece of silverware – the less-valued but fourth official international title of the year, the somewhat obscure Suruga Cup.

Gallardo may have inherited a side that were league champions, but he still managed to improve their performance levels – while modernising the back-room set-up to include a neuroscience specialist – and promptly went about breaking club records, emulating the club’s legendary side of the 1940s, “The Machine”.

Bringing to an end nearly two decades without a continental title, Gallardo praised his squad’s ability to “interpret how they had to play”. This interpretation pointed to a certain pragmatism.
Though Gallardo began fielding a classic number 10 behind two strikers, when it came to the cup competitions his team was more physical and robust than in previous months. In the Libertadores Cup, River had more shots than any other team in the competition, but also committed more fouls than any other.

The Libertadores and Sudamericana Cup victories took on an even greater level of enjoyment as the club beat Boca Juniors on the way to both Finals. But the wider context for this unprecedented success is how steep River’s climb has been in the last four years.

In the club museum and in the hall at El Monumental are cabinets crammed with silverware won during the club’s distinguished history. But one of those trophies is a reminder of River Plate’s lowest point: the trophy for 2012 second division champions.

The scenes from the riots on the day that River Plate were relegated in 2011 were broadcast around the world. The club had imploded under Daniel Passarella, the 1978 World Cup-winning captain who, as president, had failed to replicate the success he had enjoyed with the team
as a player and a coach.

River Plate relegated

Dark times…Erik Lamela is overcome after River are relegated in 2011

For one season, River suffered the indignity of travelling to corners of Argentina usually accustomed only to lower-league football. The barrage of insults from opposing fans centred
around a weak pun on the name of the second division, the B Nacional, calling them “RiBer”.
“It wasn’t pressure,” striker Alejandro Dominguez said a few months after winning promotion, “but rather a responsibility to carry so many years of history, and do what we had promised, which was to take River back to the first division.”

Dominguez had returned with Fernando Cavenaghi, both offering to play for what the club could afford to pay them, in order to help the team win promotion. Midway through the season, life-long supporter and former France international David Trezeguet did the same.

Although the three failed to combine in attack quite as effectively as had been hoped, their goals were enough to take River back up to the first division.

A brace from Trezeguet on the final day of the season in 2012 secured promotion; just two years later, River won the first division title. After a bout of retrospective title awarding by AFA that benefited several clubs, it added up to be River’s 36th league title – a national record.

The bust-boom cycle does, however, have a precedent at the club.

In 1983, Argentina was in transition with the military dictatorship exiting power. At River Plate, the idol and one of Argentinian football’s all-time top goalscorers Angel Labruna passed away. Matchday attendances were down to four figures, the club was unable to pay wages and the first-team players went on strike.

For seven league games River fielded a youth-team XI, winning just two matches and the Millionaires finished 19th. But 1983 was also the year that relegation averages were installed, following San Lorenzo’s demotion in 1981.

Avoiding relegation through the new league structure, River promptly underwent a revolution. With a new board, a new set of players and with playmaker Beto Alonso repatriated, just three years later, in 1986, River won the league championship, the Libertadores Cup and the World Club Cup. Three members of that team – Oscar Ruggeri, Nery Pumpido and Hector Enrique – added the World Cup titles with the national team in Mexico that year.

“1986 is a trademark,” wrote Alonso years later, “that is etched on all our memories.” One publication dedicated to the club is called, simply, 1986.

Upon winning the club elections in 2013, the current board tapped into the club’s lineage and tradition. Amadeo Carrizo, the legendary goalkeeper now in his 80s, was named honorary president, a role given to his former team-mate Alfredo Di Stefano at Real Madrid. Alonso, the emblematic playmaker from the all-conquering 1986 team, was handed an advisory role to the president. Ariel Ortega, who like Alonso had been distanced from the club, was named reserve-team coach. Perhaps most crucially, Francescoli, who was captain of the 1996 Libertadores Cup-winning side was named sporting director.

“Doing this was very important,” says vice-president Patanian. “We had to bring the riverplatense family, which had not been united for several years, back together. But also we wanted to bring an identity and sense of belonging back to the club.”

As a member of the successful 1990s team, and as a player who worked his way up through the club’s youth system, Gallardo is well schooled in the River Plate way. He recently quashed speculation of a possible move by signing a deal to keep him at River until 2017, but he has also  admitted that he must “reinvent” the team.

River recently sold defender Ramiro Funes Mori to Everton, and midfielder Matias Kranevitter will join Atletico Madrid in January. Theses sales brought in £15.2million, and though River receives only a percentage of those fees, it is much-needed cash that helps service the club’s debt.

At roughly £25.7m, the debt is a fraction of those facing many European clubs – but then so too is River’s income compared to those in Europe. Along with Boca Juniors, River receive less than £3m a year from television rights. As well as club finances, there are other problems, not least the persistent plague of the barra brava. Last November, over 100 of these supporters fought with knives at the club restaurant on a weekday afternoon in front of hundreds of club members.

Yet the complications that face the club are minimised, for now, by recent success. The club museum announced a record number of visits in July and museum director, Rodrigo Daskal, says he was misquoted as saying that there was not enough room for all the new trophies, but adds the board has raised the profile of the museum. “This is a historic time for us,” says Daskal, “but winning so much in one year is not normal. Very few Argentinian clubs have ever done so.”

One of the clubs to have enjoyed such sustained success are River Plate’s fierce rivals Boca, who won four Libertadores Cups, plus two Intercontinental trophies, in the 2000s. While River have more league titles than any other, they admit their international record needs improving.

The past 18 months have transformed that international record. The success also, in part, banished the memory of the second division. Just three-and-a-half years after returning to the top flight, the club is now preparing for what it hopes will be a Club World Cup Final against Barcelona in Japan.

The stadium

River Plate stadium

Steeped in history, the Estadio Antonio Vespucio Liberti, known popularly as El Monumental,
was built nine years before the Bernabeu, 19 before the Camp Nou
and hosted the 1978 World Cup Final.

One of the seven top-flight clubs in Buenos Aires, River Plate’s stadium is a short drive from superclasico rivals Boca Juniors’ equally iconic La Bombonera.

Built as a sports arena rather than just a football stadium – hence the running track around the pitch – there is constant talk of El Monumental getting a facelift, even if expansion seems a long way off.

The clock above the stand named after striker Omar Sivori, installed for the 1978 World Cup, has recently been upgraded and the old sign above the main entrance – below which thousands of supporters, tourists and new signings have had their photo taken – has finally been replaced with a new one.

Minor cosmetic changes maybe, but perhaps a sign that River are looking to revamp their home’s image.

The Power Curve

Rodolfo D’Onofrio
Club president
Elected in 2013, four years
after losing to Daniel Passerella. With a strong CV in business, he promotes a “comprehensive project” that includes success on the pitch, while building up the club’s social role.

Enzo Francescoli
Sports director
Not all clubs in Argentina have someone in this position, but the Uruguayan has proved how valuable it can be.

Marcelo Gallardo
Ambitious and innovative,
he has demonstrated strong leadership and tactical knowledge, as well as smart work in the transfer market.

Matias Patanian
An experienced director who has built a team looking to modernise and bring a more professional administration to the club.

Beto Alonso
Former player
He was vital in harnessing support from the slightly older generations for D’Onofrio in the elections. One of the club’s most distinguished players.

By Joel Richards