Amid all the excitement and hysteria surrounding Argentina’s two recent World Cup qualifiers, a story at least as important to Argentine football might have passed you by. One key part of the Asociación del Fútbol Argentino (AFA)’s new Statute, which should be approved shortly having been agreed upon by FIFA representatives last week, involves the future president of the AFA being a representative from the lower divisions instead of being from the top flight clubs. That kickback against the strongarm tactics employed by directors like Boca Juniors president Daniel Angelici is a welcome one, and raises the question: how did we get here? Where did these ‘big’ clubs come from?
So, time for a history lesson. Depending where you’re from, you’ll have different views of what constitutes a ‘big’ football club. Many in the Anglophone world (and The Bubble is an Anglophone publication, after all) will be familiar with the recent English fashion for describing however many clubs seem to be realistic league title contenders in a given season as a rather fluid ‘Big Three’ or ‘Big Four’ or however many. It’s died down somewhat following Leicester City’s shock last season, but you’ll know what I mean. In Argentina, things are much simpler, though.
Regular readers of my weekend football previews here on The Bubble, or listeners to Hand Of Pod will have noticed me frequently referring to the Big Five. Unlike in England, this concept isn’t fluid; it’s set in stone. Or at least, in ink on paper. River Plate, Boca Juniors, Racing Club, Independiente and San Lorenzo are Argentina’s Big Five. It doesn’t matter if they haven’t won any titles for ages – it doesn’t even matter if, for once every century or so, one of them slips into the second division for a season. They remain the Grandes.
Why? Well, in 1931 Argentine football turned professional, and in 1934, the two competing leagues that existed in Argentina – the Asociación Argentina de Football (Amateurs y Profesionales) (AAFAP) and the Liga Argentina de Football (LAF) – were merged into the Asociación del Football Argentino (the spelling was hispanicized a little later). The most popular clubs immediately started applying pressure to get more of a say in league affairs. They might have been competing with one another on the pitch (River v Boca and Racing v Independiente are the country’s two biggest derbies to this day, remember), but they were aware even then that collective bargaining in the boardroom would be the best way to maintain their hegemony.
And so a decision was taken to give all clubs one vote at AFA meetings, with more votes for a few others. Any club with over 10,000 members or at least one Primera División title under its belt was given two votes, as long as it had been in existence for at least twenty years uninterrupted. And some clubs were even luckier: institutions with at least 15,000 members, at least twenty uninterrupted years in the top flight and at least two Primera División titles were allowed three votes each. And you already know which five clubs those turned out to be.
Those two titles could have been won in either of the two leagues whose merger formed (or more accurately, re-formed) the AFA, but as it happened all five of the Grandes had been in the LAF in the years prior to the merger. During the 1920s, and a previous split in the league, Boca had been playing in the Asociación Argentina de Football while the other four (modern-day) big clubs had been in the Asociación Amateurs de Football, generally seen as the stronger championship today (perhaps because of the fact that it had four of the modern Big Five, who of course weren’t the Big Five at the time…), but both leagues were considered valid when it came to tallying up titles for the purpose of handing out three votes.
The fact this happened in 1934, not immediately at the end of the amateur era in 1930, is also important, because if this vote-weighting system had been done three years earlier we might now be talking about a Big Four, due to the fact that River Plate didn’t win its second league title until it finished top of the 1932 LAF (of course, they might have just changed the rules). Huracán was at one point also referred to as a Grande, although it doesn’t seem to have had enough members to gain that third vote.
Oh, and while we’re here, spare a thought for Alumni (founded as English High School). Winner of ten championships in the amateur era – more than anyone else – and still to this day the joint-sixth most successful club by top flight titles in the history of Argentine football, Alumni was denied Big Club status in 1934 by the piffling fact that it had ceased to exist a couple of decades previously. So close…
Why does this matter? Because it still has repercusions today, even though the Big Five have long since ceased to have three votes at AFA meetings (the ‘proportional vote’ system ended in 1949), they established a hegemony at the AFA such that between 1931, when the professional era began, and 1967, when Estudiantes de La Plata won the Torneo Metropolitano, not a single club from outside the Cinco Grandes won the Argentine championship. The titles have been divided up more evenly since then, but the dominance in other ways continues.
The Big Five don’t have extra votes any more, but they have commercial clout: they’re the most marketable clubs, with their matches the ones private broadcasters Turner and Fox Sports will be fighting over now that the television deal is opened up for their bids. That applies on an international level too, with the superclásico being the one fixture in the calendar that genuinely attracts worldwide interest to Argentine club football (take it from someone who runs an Argentine football podcast and Twitter account).
And so we find ourselves back in the present day, with the Big Five (and other Primera clubs) wanting to maintain power, but aware that the smaller clubs – the clubs in the interior of the country, clubs you’ve never heard of (clubs I’ve never heard of, in many cases) having their say as well. And it’s important that that remains the case, because for football to be healthy, a league has to redistribute the wealth from its commercial and TV deals. Sacachispas, or Desamparados de San Juan, or comparative giants of the lower divisions like Instituto de Córdoba or Ferro Carril Oeste might not be attracting foreign TV investment, but they’re still vital to the makeup of Argentine football.
The big clubs are inevitably going to have their say, and I’m not trying to suggest they should be silenced altogether. But Argentine football as a whole would do well to remember that it takes more than five clubs to have a competitive league.