Leicester City is champion of England. In a result as brilliant as it is unexpected, the league which in many ways seems set up to provide the smallest chance of a genuine surprise champion has one of the most surprising champions in world football history, and everyone’s understandably excited (including in a small corner of Argentina; Leonardo Ulloa is the first Patagonian ever to win an English title). So much so that even a week or two before the title was confirmed, one listener of my weekly Argentine football podcast, Hand Of Pod, tweeted in to ask what the Argentine equivalent of Leicester City winning a championship would be.
The first thing to say, straight off the bat, is that it’s essentially impossible to come up with a real like-for-like equivalent because of the differences between the league structures. The English league was reasonably open field for roughly the first century of its existence after kicking off in 1888, and even now, after Manchester United’s 20 and Liverpool’s 18 titles there’s much more parity down the table in terms of all-time titles won. But in the Premier League era (since 1992) it’s come to be dominated by a cabal of big clubs — first Manchester United and more recently a group made up of it plus Arsenal and the oligarch-funded riches of Manchester City and Chelsea. A year ago, conceiving of a league title won by a club without that kind of financial clout at some time in the next decade or two was unthinkable.
In Argentina, the situation is almost exactly reversed; domination by a few teams came early on from 1891, with first Alumni and Racing taking the lead in the amateur era, and then the modern-day Big Five (River Plate, Boca Juniors, Racing, Independiente and San Lorenzo) exerting superiority; those five teams won every league title between the dawn of the professional era in 1931 and 1967, when Estudiantes de La Plata claimed the Torneo Metropolitano. Today, the field is much more even, not because everyone’s got loads of money, but because no one has any; that makes it far harder for one or two clubs to establish a dynasty, and leads to more of the (often self-denominated) “small” clubs having a shot at glory.
In short, there’s no modern Argentine equivalent of Leicester because if the English league was as even and unpredictable as the Argentine one, Leicester’s triumph wouldn’t be anywhere near as surprising as it is.
Still, that doesn’t mean it’s not a fun exercise to consider the candidates. We just have to go back a bit. Argentine football was born early (you’ll have noticed above that the first league championship down here was held just three years after the first season of the English league kicked off; the Argentine league is the oldest in the world outside the British Isles), and for the first couple of decades it was ruled by “English” clubs; teams set up to allow British workers to play were so prevalent that to this day, Alumni — a club which hasn’t played football since its last championship win in 1911 — is still the sixth most successful club in Primera División history.
In 1910 and 1911, Quilmes — that’s the same club that still competes in the top flight today — had finished second bottom and bottom of the table, but was allowed to remain in the division. In 1912, it won the league by four points ahead of San Isidro (two points were awarded for a win back then). The triumph looks a little less remarkable though when we consider that Alumni had largely disbanded (it would be dissolved officially in 1913), and most of its players had gone to… Quilmes. Ah.
Racing ended the era of English dominance in 1913, winning the first of five consecutive titles, but it had finished a respectable third in 1912. Never again would an “English” club claim the title (Quilmes won the 1978 Campeonato Metropolitano, but by then, of course, the club had become thoroughly localized), and in that respect Racing’s 1913 championship was era defining, but it wasn’t a shock of Leicester proportions.
Neither was the aforementioned Estudiantes championship in 1967 such a great shock, although it was certainly notable; it had ended the 1966 campaign in seventh, 20 points behind champion Racing. All the same, with a young team continuing to mature together and a short structure introduced for the 1967 Metropolitano — remarkably similar to this year’s Primera system, in fact, but with the top two in each group playing semi-finals and a final rather than going straight to a final as is happening this year — things were perhaps set up a little more kindly. That being said, perhaps it’s an example Leicester can look to for inspiration; after claiming that title, Estudiantes went on to lift three consecutive Copas Libertadores, as well as the 1968 Intercontinental Cup.
In 1931, the record books show what appears to be a huge shock; Estudiantil Porteño, which had finished 21st in the previous year’s 36-team(!) Primera, claimed the title in a playoff against Almagro. Unfortunately, appearances can be deceptive. 1931 was the year Argentine football turned professional, but the professional league from 1931 to 1934 wasn’t officially recognized by the Argentine Football Association (AFA) — the two were only merged in 1935. Estudiantil Porteño’s seemingly remarkable rise becomes less so when we realize that most of the teams who’d finished above it the year before had left the AFA to play in the breakaway pro league.
To my mind, the biggest shock from one year to another in Argentina seems to belong to Chacarita Juniors, which ended the 1968 Campeonato Metropolitano in seventh place in Group B, and won its first ever championship in 1969 by thrashing River 4-1 in the final.
Ferro Carril Oeste’s run in the 1980s has achieved cult status — it won the 1982 and 1984 Torneos Nacional, going unbeaten in 1982 — but was the result of a gradual rise and a team expected to be contenders (it had already finished second in both championships held during 1981). It was remarkable, there’s no denying that, but perhaps more so now than at the time.
So there we have it: even in arguably the world’s most unpredictable league, it’s still very difficult to find a champion as surprising as Leicester City this year in England. In a way, that just further underlines how astonishing the Foxes’ achievement is.