There’s something about spring in Argentina, isn’t there? Perhaps it’s the balmy temperatures, the relaxed atmosphere that comes with knowing summer is just around the corner, and the knowledge that in a short while, traffic in the big cities will start thinning out as people head off on their holidays.
Oh, who am I kidding? The second the daily temperature gets above about 21 degrees Celsius, this entire country seems to completely lose control of itself. You might be wondering why I’m writing this as a sports feature, so let me explain: I have a theory that the Argentine league is rather like a canary in the coal mine in this respect. The sort of mental, totally unjustified temper tantrums you’ll be seeing on buses and in shops in a couple of weeks get previewed on Argentine football pitches first.
Last weekend was a case in point. On Sunday night, the twelfth round of matches in the Torneo Inicial ended in Mendoza, with Godoy Cruz forced to settle for a draw thanks to a penalty awarded to Boca Juniors with one minute to play, which allowed the visitors to make it 2-2. Viewed as an isolated incident, it’s impossible to argue with the penalty decision. It was a hilariously inept challenge, and if the referee hadn’t given it, it would have been ridiculous.
The thing is, it was the third Boca penalty decision in roughly the last ten or fifteen minutes of the match. The first, in my opinion, should have been given but wasn’t (you can make your own mind up here). Either way, the decision was understandable, because to an extent, Boca forward Juan Manuel Martínez had looked for the challenge; that was clearly referee Pedro Argañaraz’s interpretation. The second was almost certainly a foul, but was committed right on the line of the penalty box, and Argañaraz opted to give a Boca free kick on the very edge of the area, rather than a penalty. Then came the final challenge, an undisputed penalty, which was given and scored.
None of this sounds particularly contentious (three decisions, two of which were tricky and for which the ref played it safe, one of which was nailed-on and was given). And yet Argañaraz’s manner of dealing with the players and with other key decisions in the game got Godoy Cruz so hot under their collars that, as soon as the final whistle went, a fight broke out. Now, admittedly it was quite amusing to see Martín Palermo and Roberto Abbondanzieri—both legends at Boca and now the manager and assistant coach of Godoy Cruz, respectively—complaining about officiating bias towards their former club, but the fact that things got so out of hand just proved a wider point.
Last week, Arsenal de Sarandí beat San Lorenzo 3-0 in the Copa Argentina final. San Lorenzo had a man sent off. There were no complaints, because it was a hideous challenge and the scandal would have been if it had gone unpunished. But it was just as well that the card was undisputed, because days before the same two sides had met in Sarandí in the league, and San Lorenzo had two men sent off under rather more contentious circumstances.
That league meeting was the second Arsenal home game in a row in which their opponents had ended the match with only nine men on the pitch. Arsenal were founded by current Argentine Football Association head Julio Humberto Grondona, and their current president is his son, Julio Ricardo Grondona. Their stadium is named after Grondona senior, who has been in charge of the AFA since 1979 and is also a long-standing FIFA Vice-President. He is widely believed (not by anyone linked with this column, oh good heavens no…) to be one of the most corrupt men in world football.
It’s not hard to see, then, why fans of practically every other club in Argentina feel Arsenal are the beneficiaries of a lot of favourable refereeing calls, particularly when they have two men sent off playing in Sarandí, arguably neither of whom should have been.
Bear with me, because the digression of the previous couple of paragraphs has a point, and here it is: following the Arsenal v San Lorenzo league game (a 2-1 win for Arsenal, who scored their winner against San Lorenzo’s nine men in the last minute), there was more pressure than ever on Germán Delfino, the man who was to referee the Copa final—and who, in the end, did a good job. Julito Grondona, as Arsenal president Julio Grondona Junior is known, sarcastically told the press before the match, “I’ll ask Delfino to do everything he can to give San Lorenzo the win…”
Even with Grondona junior making a joke about it, every mention of the subject by any of the protagonists just added pressure to Delfino, and of course to every referee who’ll officiate an Arsenal match for the rest of this season. That Delfino did a good job in the final was true, but it was in spite of, not because of, the media storm.
Of course, at times heaping the blame for a bad result on the referee can serve to protect a club’s own players and keep them from losing confidence. Ask any English football fan and they’ll recognise—whether they like him and his former club or not—that that’s what Sir Alex Ferguson did on many occasions whilst at Manchester United, for instance. But in Argentina so many managers and clubs go on about it so much that it ceases to have that effect, and almost ends up becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Teams seem to allow their expectations of the officials to cloud their judgement, and then all hell breaks loose—as appeared to be happening after the Godoy Cruz v Boca Juniors draw, in which a few not especially contentious decisions suddenly became the biggest injustice ever to be visited upon Mendoza Province.
Referees aren’t the only victims in all this. On Friday last week, Quilmes were lucky to escape from their own ground with a 1-1 draw after being completely outplayed by Atlético de Rafaela. On his way out of the stadium, Quilmes manager Nelson Vivas (SEO requirements oblige me to note that he used to play for Arsenal, not of Sarandí but of the English Premier League) was approached by a fan, and promptly turned round and hit him three times in the face. Vivas was dragged off by police and, a couple of days later, resigned.
The day after that incident, the fan—Carlos Dondero—told the press, “I only asked him why he didn’t say anything about the officials always screwing us out of decisions.” I want to separate these two thoughts out now, to be clear: a manager hitting a supporter is clearly way out of line. But a fan opining that his team’s manager should be applying more pressure to the referee strikes me—regardless of what happened right afterwards—as not an especially healthy way of viewing one’s favourite sport. A couple of weeks ago I was at Argentinos Juniors’ 3-1 home defeat to Belgrano, and saw home manager Ricardo Caruso Lombardi offer to fight an Argentinos fan who (one assumes) had told him to calm down a bit after his frankly nuclear reaction to a red card for one of his players.
On Wednesday, as I write this piece, Atlético de Rafaela have just followed up that 1-1 away to Quilmes by escaping with a barely-deserved draw themselves, this time 0-0 at home to River Plate. River scored not one but two goals which were perfectly legal, but the officials ruled both out for non-existent offside calls.
The most surprising/bizarre, but also healthy thing about this after the match was that River manager Ramón Díaz—who’s spent most of the season complaining incessantly about officials cheating his side, before admitting a couple of weeks ago, “We have to be more self-critical,”—simply said to the TV Pública cameras, “We played well but we couldn’t score. We’re having problems in attack … let’s hope it improves before we play Lanús [next week in the Copa Sudamericana].”
I’ll end with a few words from someone who knows far better than I do what he’s talking about when it comes to the pressure faced by referees. Back in April, I interviewed Horacio Elizondo, arguably the last truly world-class referee Argentina produced. If you don’t recognise his name, you’re most likely to know him as the man who sent off Zinedine Zidane near the end of the 2006 World Cup final.
“Everyone looks at it afterwards on television,” Elizondo told me, “and decides whether you did well or badly. Well, sometimes referees do make mistakes, and they should be responsible. Sometimes, on the other hand, there’s a kind of journalism—at least here in Argentina—which isn’t exactly overburdened with an understanding of the rules of the game and the factors affecting how referees make their decisions … Someone passing judgement on whether a referee is good or bad, from a TV studio, can be a very influential factor.”
Later, Elizondo said;
“My idea, now that I’m an analyst myself, isn’t to be down on the referee, kill or criticise the referee, but rather to look specifically at the decisions the referee takes, how he takes them, and look at why this or that referee has had a good or a bad day. If he’s done something bad, we [on the TyC Sports show, Estudio Fútbol] try and look for a solution—how he can correct that mistake next time—and if he’s done well, we look at why that is as well, and I try and give praise where it’s due.”
If only a few more managers and club directors would follow that advice. Here’s hoping, because Argentine football has enough problems in and around its stadia already, without the players and managers everyone’s gone to see in action joining in.