The second season of the Argentine Primera División under its new guise of Superliga has come to a close, signed off in a blaze of fireworks and celebrations on Sunday evening at champion Racing Club’s Cilindro home. It was a sprint rather than a marathon for the teams involved: with just 25 fixtures from start to finish, two games shorter than the inaugural Superliga lifted by Boca Juniors and barely longer than the muchquestioned short tournaments that used to constitute the top flight.
How to organise the bloated Primera has been a headache for teams and the Argentine Football Association (AFA) ever since the late Julio Grondona, in one of the last acts of his eternal presidency before going to meet his maker, pushed through in 2014 a new 30-team division. The league that kicks off in August, 2019, will boast 24 participants, an improvement on current matters but still not conducive to a regular round-robin system. But AFA’s solution to that issue for the coming season is curious to say the least.
In fairness to the governing body, the organisers are without a doubt stuck between a rock and a hard place. Forcing each team to honour home and away fixtures would create a 46-game slog, a scenario that is clearly unworkable given the extra commitments on the calendar demanded by the Copas Libertadores, Sudamericana and Argentina. Restricting the Superliga to just a single game between each club, meanwhile, would throw up a season of just 23 matches, leaving gaping holes in the schedule – not to mention on our television screens.
The solution is a classic AFA compromise. Tacked on to the end of Superliga 2020, as in the current season, will be a ‘cup’ tournament involving all the participants of that season’s league competition. But the second Copa de la Superliga will take on the guise of a miniround robin, with the teams drawn into two groups of 12 and playing each other once. That will at least take each side’s fixture count up to a respectable 34 matches (an extra inter-zone ‘derby’ round is also under consideration but yet to be confirmed) and ensure the likes of Fox and TNT will not find themselves out of pocket on their premium television packs. Each of those groups would then yield a winner, who would go on to play each other in a one-off final for the right to be crowned Copa champion. So far, the concept is simple enough.
It is at the bottom of the league where things begin to unravel, however, the ever-controversial promedios average points system will also be in place for the Copa, marking the first time in the history of Argentine football that a cup competition will count towards relegation. It is this facet of the Frankenstein tournament devised in Viamonte street that has caused most consternation.
Qualification for continental competitions, for one, will still be defined in the Superliga. There will be therefore scant motivation for those teams who have already gained passage to the Libertadores or Sudamericana to take the following matches seriously, particularly if they are simultaneously active in either of those trophies. The prospect then of the likes of River and Boca fielding reserve sides against teams fighting desperately against relegation to the Nacional B is very real, and promises to unfairly distort the relegation battle in its decisive moments.
Those who follow closely the comings and goings of local football have no reason to be surprised by the latest developments, of course. In the middle of this very season AFA made the decision to expand its second tier to 32 teams from 2019-20 onwards, at a stroke giving three more sides from the B Metropolitana the chance for promotion with the campaign already underway. Consistency and predictability are buzzwords that have never had much weight around the corridors of Viamonte.
If this improvised stop-gap is necessary to keep the Superliga on the path to ‘normality’, so be it. But with huge uncertainty over the Frankenstein format of the Copa and legitimate criticisms pointing at the bizarre relegation system, it is far from an ideal solution to the very real problems that blight what is supposedly Argentine football’s elite division.