The quality of football on display during this year’s Primera División championship has varied from decent to atrocious, and the competitive value of a 30-team league has been exposed as highly questionable, to say the least. At a continental level, though, one thing remains true: Argentine clubs are still among the very strongest in South America.
Flying the flag this week is Huracán, which on Wednesday night will play the first leg of its first-ever international final, at home to Independiente Santa Fe of Colombia. At stake is the Copa Sudamericana, the region’s second most important club trophy. Having beaten the holder, fellow Argentines River Plate, in the semi-finals, Huracán becomes the sixth Argentine representative to reach the final in the last seven South American continental cups (Tigre, Lanús, San Lorenzo and River on two occasions are the other five). In the last three years, starting with the 2012 Sudamericana, only the 2013 Copa Libertadores has produced a final without an Argentine team.
Huracán appears to be developing something of a habit as a knockout specialist. It qualified for this competition by lifting last year’s Copa Argentina while in the second division and then edging River in the Supercopa Argentina. The Supercopa doesn’t mean much (Sudamericana qualification aside), but the Sudamericana could be Huracán’s second “proper” trophy in just over a year. Considering the club’s most recent major trophy before November last year was the 1973 Torneo Metropolitano (the only top flight championship it‘s won in the professional era), it would represent quite a trophy glut.
It’s strange, considering this could become by many measures the club’s most successful 12 months ever, to consider Huracán’s league showing in the same spell. Last year the team had only the 12th best record in the second division, and in a campaign which saw almost half the teams promoted due to the expansion of the top flight, still needed to play a tie-break match in order to go up. This year, the team has hardly made a nonsense of that situation, finishing 23rd in the 30-team championship and not ensuring safety from relegation until the final day.
Out of the Libertadores at the group stage earlier in the year, it seemed Huracán didn’t have the knack for international competition, but the team’s run in this tournament has been much better, even as performances in the league have been frustratingly inconsistent. The second leg of the semi-final win over River was a case in point; incisive and ruthless in its punishment of River’s mistakes in the first half, the team had a 2-0 half time lead (3-0 on aggregate) and fell off hugely in the second half. Huracán ended up hanging on for dear life to a 3-2 aggregate win after a double from River striker Rodrigo Mora made things far more nerve-shredding than they should have been.
If Mora had given River life, though, striker Ramón Ábila has been the face of Huracán’s 2015 season. Nicknamed “Wanchope” for his supposed (and entirely non-existent) physical resemblance to Costa Rican striker Paulo Wanchope, Ábila can look utterly brilliant in one match and resemble someone who’s never seen a football before just days later – and the relative quality of the opposition rarely seems to come into the equation.
Others – not least wide forward Cristian Espinoza, midfielder Patricio Toranzo and veteran advanced playmaker Daniel Montenegro – have been as important as Ábila, in truth, but it’s the striker’s spirit, opportunism and, if we’re being honest, that almost willful streak of inconsistency which have made him the poster boy for the club in the last 12 months.
Against Santa Fe, the Parque Patricios outfit will be hoping Ábila got out of bed on the right side, because the Colombian team represents a very stiff challenge. Having eliminated some good teams, such as Avellaneda giants Independiente and Ecuadorian team Emelec, Santa Fe’s defense was already its clearest strength even before it met Paraguay’s Sportivo Luqueño in the semis. Luqueño might not be a famous name across the continent, but it had a very strong home record this year, and Santa Fe’s progression on away goals was an impressive result.
Entry for Huracán into the list of clubs with an international title to its name would highlight the feeling that the Argentine league is preeminent in South America at present. After several years during which the Brazilian championship was clearly a level above, Brazil’s clubs have slumped of late – especially in international competition – and Argentine teams have been the ones who’ve taken best advantage of the void their neighbors have left.
Tigre lost to São Paulo in the 2012 Sudamericana final, and the 2013 Libertadores saw Brazil’s Atlético Mineiro beat Paraguay’s Olimpia, but since then Argentina has monopolized the roll of honor. Lanús (2013 Sudamericana), San Lorenzo (2014 Libertadores) and River (2014 Sudamericana and this year’s Libertadores) have been the last four major South American trophy winners. Huracán has a serious challenge on its hands to join those clubs on the list, but if it manages to do so, it really will feel like a dynasty of sorts has been established.