River Plate v Boca Juniors - where has the magic gone?
The biggest occasion in South American domestic club football was back on Sunday when River Plate met Boca Juniors in a league match for the first time in almost 18 months.
The big Buenos Aires derby is followed all over the continent for a number of reasons. One is the historic role played by Argentina in the consolidation of South American football. The British introduced the game to the South Cone. More than anyone else, the Argentines helped the spread of the game northwards. In terms of playing styles and fan culture, much of the continent takes its cue from Argentina.
The second reason is the content of the derby, the forces which are being represented. Both River and Boca began life in the working class docklands area of La Boca - literally 'the mouth' of the River Plate - where, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century immigrants poured in in their millions from Italy, Spain, Eastern Europe and the Middle East.
Boca Juniors have stayed put. River Plate have long since moved out to the snooty suburbs. Both moved into their current stadiums and consolidated their identities just as Argentine football was entering into its 1940s golden age.
The contrast between them is striking. River Plate is all about space - the wide avenues around the ground, giant corridors inside the stadium, a huge gap between the fans and the pitch. Everything at Boca, meanwhile, is cramped - the narrow streets of the neighbourhood and the stadium so steeply built that it is informally known as the 'Bonbonera' - the chocolate box.
River Plate, then, have something of the immigrant dream about them; Boca have the sweat of working class solidarity. This same fault line - the haves and the have-nots - is a vital component of many South American derbies. The rest of the continent, then, can see itself reflected in the Buenos Aires 'super-classic.'
And there is a third explanation for the popularity of the game - the quality of the spectacle. These are two great clubs who, even allowing for the tendency of any derby to provide more heat than light, can usually be counted upon to come up with a flash of flair along with the fury.
River Plate's Rodrigo Mora is challenged for the ball by Boca Juniors Emiliano Albin. Photo: Getty Images
Sunday's game was certainly dramatic. Millions mourned the absence of the game during the year that River spent in the second division. Their wait was rewarded with a dramatic finale - River going two goals up with 21 minutes to go only for Boca to fight back and draw level in stoppage time.
But in terms of technical quality it is hard to believe there have been many worse matches in the century of rivalry between these two great clubs. Neither side was consistently capable of stringing three passes together.
The dismal level of play reflected the shock experienced by Maxi Rodriguez a few months ago, when after a decade in Europe the midfielder left Liverpool to rejoin his home town club Newells Old Boys in Rosario.
"The standard of football has got worse in the last ten years," he said of his return to the Argentine game. "The games increasingly lack flow. There is much more running and battling than before. There is huge fear of losing, and aesthetic considerations are no longer a priority."
Much of this has to do with the decline of the old fashioned Argentine number ten, the elegant, foot-on-the-ball playmaker who orchestrates his side's attack. The physical evolution referred to by Rodriguez and the use of two central midfield destroyers have reduced his space and all but squeezed him out of existence.
Neither side in Sunday's derby fielded such a player - though the ghost of the number ten was there to haunt the occasion.
Boca's Juan Roman Riquelme stopped playing for the club in July, but has never really gone away. He always had a strained relationship with club coach Julio Falcioni, who has traditionally favoured a 4-4-2 formation with no playmaker.
The crowd chant Riquelme's name when they want to criticise the coach. Riquelme remains in training, and is linked to a move to Brazil or the Middle East. It has been speculated, though, that a change of coach at Boca might facilitate his return.
River, meanwhile, have a highly promising number ten figure in the teenage Manuel Lanzini. Club coach Matias Almeyda has tried out a number of formations this season but has not found one that is well suited to Lanzini, who was not even on the bench on Sunday.
If it had a choice, the match ball on Sunday would surely have preferred to have been caressed lovingly by one of these players than to be booted back and forth so crudely. And perhaps therein lies the problem.
There should always be room for a player with the ability to dictate the rhythm of the game and split the opposing defence with a surprise through pass. And it is not too much to ask such a player to understand the importance of mobility, and of dropping behind the line of the ball to help out with the marking.
But if the number tens need to evolve, then so do the others. In a perfect midfield, everyone is an all rounder. But it seems that in Argentina the removal of the number ten is exposing all the more the limitations of the other midfielders.
As hinted by Maxi Rodriguez, there is an excess of runners and battlers, and a dearth of old fashioned quality.
Thankfully this is not reflected in the national team, who have played some dazzling football in the last year. Most of these players came through in the golden age of Argentina's youth structure, when they won the World Cup at Under-20 level five times between 1995 and 2007.
But youth specialists in the country have been warning for a while that standards are slipping - and Argentina's Under-20 teams in 2009 and 2011 were very disappointing.
As a huge fan of well-played Argentine football, I hope the decline can be halted and reversed. It would be great to think that occasions such as the River-Boca derby could be celebrated not just for its historical resonance and the intensity of the atmosphere, but also for the quality of the play.
Comments on the piece in the space provided. Questions on South American football to email@example.com, and I'll pick out a couple for next week.
From last week's postbag;
Q. Do you see any possibility of Ronaldinho returning to the Brazilian national team? He is looking rejuvenated at Atletico Mineiro.
A. He is playing well. He has pace all around him and a centre forward in front, so there are plenty of options for him to show his range of passing and he is enjoying it. He was also in top form for Flamengo when he was called up last year - but the problem was apparent in his first game back, against Ghana at Craven Cottage. He hardly touched the ball.
Coach Mano Menezes said after the game that the rhythm of international football was much more intense than that of the Brazilian game, and that Ronaldinho had struggled to make the transition. In truth, this has been a major theme of the Menezes years, with the domestically-based youngsters also finding it hard to step up.
With that in mind, it is difficult to imagine another recall for Ronaldinho. But never say never, especially in Brazilian football. If he takes the Libertadores by the scruff of the neck next year then a recall is not impossible.