Problems on and off the pitch continue to undermine River Plate.

By Eric Weil in Buenos Aires
River Plate won their 33rd title just 12 months ago in last season’s closing championship. Six months later they finished bottom of this season’s opening championship.

River then suffered an embarrassing exit from the group stage of the current Libertadores Cup. That may have been a surprise for many but the writing had been on the wall for a long time.

Soon after professional soccer began in Argentina in 1931, River Plate acquired the nickname of “Millonarios” (millionaires) because they paid the highest prices for players. Today that nickname is a joke. A club official said recently that their financial situation is “on the point of collapse”. It is not hard to figure out why.

River have a large membership paying regular fees; they have regularly sold their best players abroad for high prices instead of strengthening their squad; they stage regular rock concerts at their stadium; they have advertisers paying the highest fees for space at the stadium and on their shirts; and they sell a lot of other merchandise, besides.

Their real annual income is not published for tax reasons, but it is certainly a lot. So where does all the money go? That is a question that has been asked all too often , with many speculating that poor administration and corruption are the primary causes.

While selling players at high prices, River have generally bought badly, going rather for star names than players who fit well into the team. Of the recognised first teamers that won the last title only 12 months ago, there are only four left. Meanwhile, for example, River brought back Marcelo Gallardo, a former star past his best and no longer wanted in Europe. The club even wanted Ariel Ortega, another over-age former idol who has drink problems and was loaned to a second division club where he struggled.

River have a professional squad of over 40 players but they have struggled to sell players to Europe, especially in the current financial crisis, and have had to resort to asking local investors to buy up players’ contracts for cash.

But these investors are not interested in owning players in the long term; they would much rather sell for a profit at the first opportunity. And even when the club does sell a player to Europe, the fee is less than before because the new investors take their slice of the deal.

When national team coach Diego Maradona recently fielded a selection of players from local clubs there was not a single one from River Plate. Yet the full national team, composed mostly of players from foreign clubs, contains quite a number who originally came from River Plate.

River Plate’s junior divisions always gained good results, specially when Brazilian Delem was junior teams co-ordinator. But when the man who is responsible for some of the problems, Jose Maria Aguilar, became president he did not renew Delem’s contract and those who succeeded him have not been successful.

Numerous youngsters want to play for River Plate, but few realise their dream of playing for the first team, partly because the club continues to buy players from other clubs – looking for names instead of giving their young players a chance. But there is another problem.

As soon as a junior team player shows promise, a club official convinces his parents to let him become his agent, but only with the idea of making money and the best way he can do that is to sell him to another club. A notable case was that of Jose Sand, today one of the top division’s leading scorers… for Lanus.

Some club officials spend most of the day at the club and do not seem to have a proper job. It appears that they live off the club without doing anything for it. Apart from player representation, they also get their hands on match tickets to sell and perhaps other things.

Walking through the River Plate stadium – Argentina’s largest – one cannot fail to notice that upkeep is badly needed, especially of the pitch which has been badly churned up by a series of rock concerts. Unfortunately, this is the only stadium authorised by FIFA for World Cup qualifying matches and this is not doing the national team any favours. .

Then there is the club’s notorious hooligan gang which has close connections with the club’s committee – either because club officials are afraid or find it convenient – although the club deny any connection. Yet several gang members are employed by the club. Also, an insider told me last year that the gang also received cash on a monthly basis and percentages of some transfer fees – hence their continual infighting over distribution.

There are at least half a dozen candidates for presidential elections at the end of the year. They all say they will change things at River. But it is hard to see how they can.