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Catching Up With Argentina’s Football Soap Opera

By | [email protected] | July 25, 2016 11:04am

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Let it never be said that the members of the Normalization Committee running the Argentine Football Association (AFA) at the moment aren’t persistent. There are many things to be sorted out still before the new domestic season begins in mid-late August; things have got so silly lately that I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if they announce the 2016-17 season is to be played in accordance with the rules of water polo rather than football. So as I’ve not written here for a few weeks, let’s have a bit of a catch-up…

First up, the national team manager’s job. Gerardo Martino, you’ve probably heard, stepped down recently in frustration at the lack of players being released for the Olympic Football Tournament. The fact that club directors are the folk who make up the AFA board made this look very much like he was ‘having his bed made for him’ by his bosses, as the phrase goes down here, and that look was only intensified when a full squad was announced the very next day.

In truth the lack of players was more the straw that broke the camel’s back than the sole reason for Martino’s resignation; he and his staff hadn’t been paid in ages and he seems in many ways to have shared senior players’ frustrations, voiced during the Copa América Centenario in particular, at the way the AFA is run. Taking over for the Olympics is Julio Olarticoechea, a member of the 1986 World Cup-winning team who until quite recently was the women’s national team boss (he’s also one of few men either brave or foolish enough to have played for both River Plate and Boca Juniors). He took over the Under 20s a few months ago due to lack of coaches, and after Martino and all his technical staff walked, El Vasco as he’s known (because Olarticoechea is a Basque name, you see) was the only coach still employed by the AFA.

Julio Olarticoechea. Hey, if this photo

Julio Olarticoechea. Hey, if this photo’s flattering enough to go up on the CONMEBOL website, it’s good enough for us. (Photo via conmebol.com)

 

Olarticoechea probably won’t be in the senior job beyond the Olympics, though, and the AFA might be due for a restraining order as they seek to find a long-term successor to Martino. On Friday afternoon Edgardo Bauza arrived in the country for talks. The São Paulo manager, one of only three men to manage two different clubs to the Copa Libertadores title (Liga de Quito and San Lorenzo), and the only boss to reach the Libertadores semi-finals with four clubs (those two plus Rosario Central and São Paulo), is one of the favorites for the job along, bafflingly, with Miguel Ángel Russo.

Both Bauza and Russo are said to be talking to the AFA about the job at present, with Russo’s cause seemingly helped by the fact he was at Boca Juniors when Mauricio Macri was president of the club, and gets on well with Macri. The footballing argument for Russo being handed the job is rather weaker, though, so although Bauza’s style might not be to everyone’s liking he’d surely be the better choice of the two.

The restraining order might be required by other bosses, though; three in particular. Atlético de Madrid boss Diego Simeone was widely reported as having been offered the job almost as soon as Martino left, and as having turned it down. Jorge Sampaoli would be another fine choice, but a very expensive one as he’s just joined Sevilla, and when he left the Chilean national job he signed an agreement with the ANFP (the Chilean Asociación Nacional de Fútbol Profesional) meaning that as well as his new club contract having to be bought out, the Copa América holder will get a big sum if Sampaoli takes another national team job before the end of the Russia 2018 World Cup. The AFA, of course, doesn’t have that money.

Finally, there’s Tottenham Hotspur manager Mauricio Pochettino, another man who’d be a popular choice but, with a huge buyout clause in his contract, far too expensive. All that money hasn’t stopped the AFA from trying to have conversations with all three men, though, and at the time of writing they’re reportedly eager to talk to Simeone. God knows what about, given he’s already made clear he doesn’t want to take the job with the AFA in its current state, but they’re nothing if not persistent. What the point is in continuing to interview someone who’s already turned the job down, though, I’m not sure.

Still, we can expect to hear more about the national manager – most relevantly, his identity – in the next few days, I would think. Just as urgently: what’s going on with the SuperLiga?

The short answer to that question is not a lot, right now. The new body has been approved, meaning that the top two divisions of Argentine football will soon be run outside the AFA, but still under its ultimate authority (yes, the AFA still has authority. Or so it claims). That much is easy enough to grasp; think England’s Premier League, Italy’s Serie A, Spain’s La Liga and so on. An inability to get the statute approved in time for the 2016-17 season means the SuperLiga won’t come into being until next year, though, so the upcoming season will still be the good old Primera División we know and love.

Structurally, it’s expected to be what was already planned: 30 teams, with everyone playing everyone else once except clásicos (and randomly-drawn opponents for teams with no clásico rival in the Primera) which will be played twice, home-and-away, for a 30-round competition overall. That’s just like the 2015 calendar year Primera, in other words, but played August-June instead of February-November. The top five go into the 2018 Copa Libertadores, the next five go into the 2017 Copa Sudamericana.

Next year there will be four relegations and only two teams promoted from the B Nacional, and that pattern will continue once the SuperLiga kicks in, until we’re back to a sensibly-sized 20-team top flight.

That’s how it all stands at the moment, of course, but this is Argentine football, and all of these details might easily change by the time you read this, never mind in the intervening years before that magical number 20 is finally arrived at. As they’re doing a fine job of reminding us during this winter break, there’s rarely a dull moment with the AFA.