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Argentine title race is a sprint, relegation a marathon

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Tim Vickery | 10:14 UK time, Monday, 18 June 2012

In the rollercoaster of tournament football it took Russia little more than a week to move from possible winners to definite failures at Euro 2012. Spare a thought, then, for Argentine club Tigre who could move to either extreme in the space of 90 minutes - or even be both at the same time.

Next week is the last round of the conventional season in Argentina and Tigre have a good chance of winning the title for the first time in the club's long history. But they are also in danger of being relegated to the second division.

This apparent absurdity is possible because radically different time frames are used at either end of the table. Winning the title is a sprint. The campaign is just 19 games long with all the teams facing each other once, meaning two separate championships can be played each year.

Relegation, meanwhile, is a marathon. It is worked out on an average of points accumulated over the course of six championships or three years (teams have their points divided by the number of games played - 114 for those who have spent the last three years in the first division, 76 for those present in the last two and 38 for the clubs promoted a year ago).

Criticisms of such a format are easily made. It encourages a short-term mentality in the winning of the title and requires the services of a mathematician to work out the points average.

On the plus side, a short competition often keeps the title race alive until the end. And it also means that there is no such thing as a meaningless game. When two mid-table sides meet at the end of the season, the points won and lost could make all the difference in the relegation battle two years later.

Certainly Tigre have had every reason to regret their awful form in the two championships played in the 2009-10 season. The previous year, they were only a goal away from winning the title. Then, as is so often the nature of things in South America, that team was broken up and in the next 38 matches they managed a disastrous total of just 32 points.

Tigre beat Argentine giants Boca Juniors 2-1 back in April. Photo: Getty

Along with a par-for-the-course total of 50 points from 2010-11, it meant that when they kicked off last August they needed to perform well above average just to keep their head above water.

In the first championship of 2011-12, Tigre finished seventh and in the second, with one game to go, they are joint top of the table.

This is all very well but Tigre have made it clear that winning the title is not priority number one. More important is ensuring first division survival. In the relegation index their good run of form has hauled them up to five off the bottom with the last two go down automatically and the next two playing off against the sides finishing third and fourth in the second division.

It is still possible, then, that Tigre can win the first division title and end up in the second division.

Whatever happens, this has been a memorable first season in the coaching career of Rodolfo Arruabarrena. Best known as left-back for Boca Juniors and Villareal, Arruabarrena was part of the Tigre team that nearly won the title in 2008. Now he is in charge of many of his former team-mates, some of whom have returned to the club after spells away.

Tigre are an old team with a young coach - Arruabarrena is just 36. But his work this year shows real promise. In particular his use of a back three has allowed him to pick two central midfielders plus the more creative Diego Morales who, given such a platform, has enjoyed a fine campaign.

Arruabarrena is one to watch for the long haul. In the short term, though, his focus will surely be restricted to Sunday when, in Tigre's bizarre fight on two fronts, he could be forgiven for having a calculator in one hand and the phone number of the cardiologist in the other.

Comments on the piece in the space provided. Questions on South American football to and I'll pick out a couple for next week.

From last week's postbag:

After their 1-0 defeat at home in the first leg of the Copa Libertadores semi-final, what do you think of Santos's chances in the second leg against Corinthians? I watched the highlights and they seemed to be the better team and have more chances than Corinthians. Do you think they can win and go on and retain the trophy? Also, what do you think of their league chances as they haven't had the greatest of starts? Sean Dineen

They are up against it. Highlights may have made their first-leg display look better than it was. They were not good at all. Once again I was baffled by their decision to use their tight Vila Belmiro stadium rather than take the game to Morumbi, where the bigger pitch would have favoured their game.
Corinthians have conceded two goals in 11 games this season and have yet to concede at home, a defensive record which speaks for itself. They are the favourites. In terms of the league, Santos have been fielding reserve sides so far. There's plenty of time to catch up, but they will suffer from call-ups to the Olympics.

I can't help but wonder how Argentina, which has traditionally produced some of the world's best defenders - Zanetti, Ayala, Ruggeri, Samuel, Passarella, Heinze, etc - has found itself with such a shortage of new talent in the last few years - especially when contrasted to their current attacking riches. What do you put this lack of defensive quality down to and how can Argentina buck this trend? Atour Tuma

It is striking though I would never include Heinze in any list of greats. National team coach Alejandro Sabella has acknowledged that there are problems in both positions. Why? Maybe it is just cyclical. Maybe some careers have come unstuck because of premature moves to Europe - I had very high hopes of Juan Forlin, for example, but haven't really followed his progress since the move to Espanol.
Maybe - and this is the most worrying explanation - Argentina are witnessing a decline in quality in youth production in all positions. Certainly the last couple of Under-20 sides have been very disappointing and youth development specialists in the country have been warning of declining standards.
Perhaps also the change in the interpretation of the rules has been a factor. Passarella was such a good player he could surely have adapted to today's stricter refereeing. But I'm not 100% sure the same applies to Ruggeri.

Specifically in terms of full-backs, I'm optimistic about Juan Sanchez Mino of Boca on the left. He's a midfielder really, but he's been playing a bit at left back and I think that before long he could do a job there for the national team. He's neat in everything he does, and has such a great engine.


  • Comment number 1.

    Thanks for the read Tim, what a crazy way to decide relegation, I was aware of the system but had forgotten all about it, it must be a nightmare for fans and players alike. It does sound exciting though, is that so?

  • Comment number 2.

    And I thought the Duckworth-Lewis method of deciding cricket matches was complicated!

  • Comment number 3.

    I had NO idea the Argentine leagues were so crazy! Sound ridiculously exciting though. Is there no outcry for changes to this format or are the natives happy with it?

  • Comment number 4.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 5.

    Loved the recent Brazil v Argentina game - and it got me thinking about the main protagonist... Do you think that Lionel Messi actually needs the challenge of Cristiano Ronaldo around to push him to ever greater heights (a bit like Sherlock Holmes needed Moriarty)? It's often seen as Mr Humble v Mr Hubris, but to me there have been signs this year that Messi has been striving just as hard as his 'arch rival' to stay one step ahead in the race for golden boots and golden balls, refusing point blank to be rested for Barcelona, even when games were already well-won. Obviously, he's still less ostentatious than the Portuguese maestro, but there just seems to be a little more selfishness to his game now, which isn't necessarily a bad thing! Either way, we're blessed to have them both playing in the same era. Neymar has a long way to go to match either, methinks...

  • Comment number 6.

    Now that is one crazy situation

    I have no idea what will come next! These administrators better get onto the case pretty rick tick or the whole thing will fall into bedlam.

    Its always interesting to see the difference in admin between leagues. I think once our own European Champonships settled a game on the toss of a coin!

  • Comment number 7.

    A very interesting article.

    It does seem mad that a team can win the title and be relegated at the same time. Surely it can't be right that a team is unable to defend their title in the following championship?

  • Comment number 8.

    5.At 11:51 18th Jun 2012, Rajivinho wrote:
    Loved the recent Brazil v Argentina game - and it got me thinking about the main protagonist... Do you think that Lionel Messi actually needs the challenge of Cristiano Ronaldo around to push him to ever greater heights (a bit like Sherlock Holmes needed Moriarty)?


    To me that nonsense is part of the problem, football media and fans seem intent on 'personalities' and focusing on them as if football is like tennis or golf. First and foremost football is a team sport, we should all remember that.

    Secondly, Messi and Ronaldo...Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty...? I don't remember Zidane, Ronaldo and Nedved being cast as Batman, The Penguin and The Riddler or Maradona, Zico and Platini being King Arthur, Lancelot and Mordred. It all seems a bit silly to me and I don't understand why we can't appreciate footballers for their individual talents rather than making it into something else. I think Barcelona v Real Madrid is interesting enough, as is Euro 2012 without having to mention Messi.

  • Comment number 9.

    @ 4 yakubusdiet

    I don't think there was anything suspicious about the result in the Russia vs Greece game. I think the Russians simply underestimated their opponents and paid the ultimate price. If the Czechs had not managed to clear the ball off the line in the last minute of their game against Poland then Russia would have progressed from the group - the margins in tournaments are really small.

    If you are looking for a result that was clearly engineered then look no further than West Germany vs Austria in World Cup 1982.

  • Comment number 10.

    Tigre's situation is even crazier than it might appear - these 2 paras were cut from the article - they explain why even a win could still leave Tigre in the relegation play off zone

    "Here, the maths works against Tigre. If they win at home to Independiente next Sunday they are guaranteed a shot at the title. Goal difference is not used. If Arsenal win as well then an extra game between the two will decide matters.
    But a win does not necessarily save them from the relegation play-offs. They can still be overtaken by the team behind them, Rafaela.
    This is because Rafaela were only promoted a year ago. They will only have played 38 games in the first division. In the fight against relegation, three points for them is worth more than three points to Tigre, because it is divided by 38 games rather than 114. And whatever happens to Tigre, a Rafaela victory away to Godoy Cruz will be good enough to carry them out of the bottom four and to safety."

  • Comment number 11.

    @8 Vox Populi

    Really good point... for some reason we do seem currently obsessed with the cult of the celebrity. I.e. endless hand wringing about who is the best, and trying to find a singular moment which defines "why so and so is better than so and so"

    Also in the era you described, Nedved, Zidane etc, the focus was sort of on the other foot. E.g. pundits showing how much they knew about football by saying "but really its guys like Makelele, Davids, Keane who make teams tick."

  • Comment number 12.

    @BaggiosPonytail, I don't believe that whole teams tend to engage in matchfixing. If I were a fixer I would probably target referees and coaches first, then in distant third place I'd target the players.

    I am old enough to remember the claims which, rightly or wrongly, were aimed at Fashanu, Grobbelaar, Graham and others. And I'm aware how much East Asian and South Asian money is bet on football. If this isn't leading to matchfixing then I'd argue that the betting syndicates aren't doing their job professionally.

  • Comment number 13.

    @12. yakubusdiet

    Slightly off topic but if you are interested in the Fashanu, Grobbelaar match fixing affair then I recommend reading 'Foul Play' by David Thomas. An excellent book based on thorough research of the known facts and inteviews with some of the protaganists.

    Back on topic I think I'm right in saying that the unspoken reason for this complex approach to relegation in Argentina is to protect the 'big' clubs from relegation - the thinking being that its very unlikely that clubs like River Plate and Boca Juniors will have several poor seasons over a 6 Championship period. Sadly for River Plate even this level of protection and complication couldn't stop them from being relegated in 2011.

  • Comment number 14.

    Thanks for adding those extra paragraphs, Tim. I finished the blog wanting to know exactly what the final day possibilities were. I question the editing of blogs on this site sometimes.

    Another great read, and a welcome distraction from the "Euro-Schmuros"!

  • Comment number 15.

    I seem to recall when the unthinkable happened last year and River Plate finished the season in the relegation zone there was a last minute scramble to try and change the league set up to save them (although this had to be scrapped due to the reaction of the fans of other clubs). I remember being appalled when this plan was unveiled, thinking it corrupt and an absolute affront to sporting integrity.

    Fast forward a year and the same thing is being proposed in the Scottish Premier League to save Rangers - re-arranging the entire league structure to soften their fall. Absolutely pathetic.

    But then there are a number of shady practices going on in British football at the moment. I wonder how many British observers would cry corruption if the criminal trial of the erstwhile captain of Brazil / Argentina / some other "tinpot foreign country" had their criminal trial scheduled conveniently for the week immediately after a Copa America or World Cup?

  • Comment number 16.

    Since in Argentina everything is decided in a playoff match Tigre could possibly tie both for the title and relegation playoff spot meaning they could:
    play home and away playoff for relegation playoff spot.
    if they lose, play home and away playoff for relegation
    if they win, play single playoff match for the title.
    this adds 5 games to their season. although it seems unfair, it wouldn't be the first team to go down with a championship in their previous 3 seasons.

  • Comment number 17.

    Ferry_Arrab, the change that the AFA attempted was not to save River Plate from relegation since it was proposed when River was already playing in the second division. The change was for a 38 team league which would've guaranteed River Plate's return to top tier. It was terrible, corrupt and ridiculous, but it wouldn't have cut River's time in Div. 2. Being a win away from returning to first division we've earned that right fair and square.

  • Comment number 18.

    The relegation system was started in the early 80's so that River Plate, a top club here, was helped to avoid certain relegation. Last year, however, they went down with the actual rules.
    So, as from next year a change is being introduced to make it even more stupid. Two short championships, last team on points of the 38 matches goes down together with the two worst 3 years averages (6 tournaments). No promotion playoffs.
    Because of Tigre 8 matches must be played at the same time, covering both ends of the table. Since Boca Juniors has an outside chance of winning and they are still playing the semis of the Libertadores Cup, they can ask for a postponement. This would delay everything for weeks.
    To answer some comments, it is not exciting. It is crazy, absurd, ridiculous and obviously opens to the chance of all kinds of tricks (offering money or "you lose now to us and we will return the favor next year when you are in trouble") The trend here is that teams, although illegal, incentivate opponents of your direct rivals. Players make more money with this than their salary (which they seldom get actually paid)
    And yet we are all mad over football, probably to avoid discussing other major issues.

  • Comment number 19.

    @9 And also talking of engineered results what about Denmark v Sweden in 2004.

    Was anyone really suprised to see it happen!! Would anyone be suprised to see Croatia and Spain do the same tonight!!!

  • Comment number 20.

    Excellent read as always Tim

    I actually use your blog/article in my class with Intermediate/Advanced English students but sometimes its difficult to explain your expressions and adjectives.

    Managed to write a match report for Deportivo Quito vs Emelec

    I have been to about 6 games now, including last weeks Ecuador vs Colombia, which was the only capacity game in the Atahaulpa.

    With the changing of the seasons it is getting more difficult to cope with the relentless heat and sun.

    One thing that is excellent is the amount of characters that are in the stadium as the game progresses. From the many sellers of meat,hotdogs,popcorn, ice cream to the guys selling small plastic parachutists and fairy liquid bubble toys its difficult to keep your attention on the match sometimes.

    Yesterday i had a chance to view Luciano Figueroa and Maxi Bevacqua, both Argentinians how have traveled around a bit but now settled in Ecuador. They did not impress. Both looked slow and disinterested in the game, refusing to chase down stray balls.

    It seems like there are quite a few Argentinians dotted around South America and Mexico but i wonder if there are many foreigners in the Argentinian premier division??

    Also i wonder why there are so few Ecuadorians and Bolivians plying their trade in other South American countries?? I f you look at their national and Copa Libertadores teams, and last weeks international results they are more than capable.

  • Comment number 21.

    Thanks for the extra two paragraphs. They cleared up the questions I had about it. Shame they were removed in the first place.

  • Comment number 22.

    If Tigre wins the tournament they cant be relegated and they wont play the relegation play-offs. This has been settled in 2004 when Talleres was in a similar position than Tigre right now, but they couldnt win the tournament finishing 3rd so they were relegated.

  • Comment number 23.

    On the face of it this seems to be a ridiculous scenario but if you look deeper it is not as stupid as you think.

    The idea of a team being relegated through lack of success could work even in England. The best teams to be an example of this would be Coventry and Southampton through the nineties, who in most seasons finished just above the drop zone and did just enough each season to avoid relegation. They rarely invested in their squad and just got richer from the premier league. They knew that even if they were relegated the substantial money pot would keep them afloat and likely promotion again next season.

    Imagine though if that money was shared around with the likes of Cardiff (who continually make the play-offs) what the would the league structure look like then.

    For me it would do one of two things, either force clubs to invest financially to compete with the big teams or to heavily invest in youth. The second option would then greatly advantage the national side. Its just a thought though.

  • Comment number 24.

    Actually it is as stupid as it looks but it was a thought ......what if a club could be relegated through lack of success in England? What would the leagues look like???

  • Comment number 25.

    @ 19 TonyBlair61

    No it would not be a surprise if Spain vs Croatia ended in a 2-2 draw. I don't think there will be any collusion involved but i'm sure both managers will say to their players that if scores are level after 80 minutes don't try to attack as this result suits us fine.

    If it does happen it would be the second time Italy would be on the wrong end of such a result in 8 years.

  • Comment number 26.

    Does the Second Division operate under the same system? Would it be possible for a club to be promoted and relegated in the same season? I would find that even more absurd then the situation Tigre find themselves in at the moment.

  • Comment number 27.

    @26 Uddersfeeled

    The Second Division is a long tournament european style (20 teams, 38 matches each). It does operate by the same average points system but its not possible to be promoted and relagated in the same season since the points that you need to be promoted are so many that they would keep you away from being relegated.

  • Comment number 28.

    Great article as usual Tim and what an interesting and quite unbelievable format they have in Argentina, I wasn't aware of this. I'd like to see how the Premier League or La Liga for example would have looked over the past few years on this basis. I am wondering though, are there opening and closing championships in the second division, i.e: if Tigre are relegated, could they be promoted again by the end of the year? On that subject too, how have River Plate got on this past year and have they held on to their best players? I know they signed David Trezeguet, but haven't seen anything since.

  • Comment number 29.

    Aha, I'm just now reading the above comments...

  • Comment number 30.

    22 - I can't find anything in the regulations to the effect that Tigre can't be relegated if they win the championship. Certainly the Clarin newspaper is going with the line that both are possible - if necessary, first Tigre will have to play the relegation play-offs, then, if necessary, a play off for the title.
    There's an interview with Arruabarrena in today's Ole where he says he'll be happy for Arsenal to win the title if Tigre can stay up - which would seem to rule out the idea that Tigre save their first division status by winning the title.

    I stand to be corrected, and there's always the chance of an emergency regulation - but i can see nothing in the championship rules on the lines you state.

  • Comment number 31.

    28/9 - the second division is one big season, everyone playing each other twice - no funny business with averages over 3 years.
    River lost at the weekend, but were benefited by the shock home defeat of Rosario Central - a win at home in the final game will see River, Trezeguet, Cavenaghi, Chori Dominguez, Ponzio and his piles (check out that story!) back in the first.
    If all goes wrong, they are guaranteed a shot in the play-offs.

  • Comment number 32.


    This is complicated, i did some research Tim and you are right, this is not in the rules but it was. When the average points system was established it was settled that the Champion can not be relegated, it was the time when we used to have a metropolitan and a national tounament in argentina (before the 90's when the short tournaments format began). But looks like nobody cared to include this in the new rules so there is some kind of loophole in the actual situation of Tigre.
    When Talleres, back in 2004, was in a similiar position it was said that if they were champions they wouldnt be relegated since this precedent, but since they finished 3rd there was no need to implement this.

  • Comment number 33.

    @ 24 redpirate

    I've had a look. If the format was applied to the Premier League there would be some differences.

    2011-12 final table
    Manchester United
    Manchester City
    Tottenham Hotspur
    Newcastle United
    West Bromwich Albion
    Swansea City
    Norwich City
    Stoke City
    Wigan Athletic
    Aston Villa
    Queens Park Rangers
    Bolton Wanderers
    Blackburn Rovers
    Wolverhampton Wanderers

    3 season average points table
    Manchester United
    Manchester City
    Tottenham Hotspur
    Newcastle United
    Aston Villa
    West Bromwich Albion
    Swansea City
    Norwich City
    Stoke City
    Blackburn Rovers
    Wigan Athletic
    Bolton Wanderers
    Queens Park Rangers
    Wolverhampton Wanderers

    Wigan and Bolton would be level on an average of 40.3 points per season so not sure how they would be separated. Blackburn would stay up because of the 2009-10 season when they accumulated 50 points. They would probably struggle in the 2012-13 season however because of the 31 points they accrued in 2011-12.

  • Comment number 34.

    @ 33

    Correction - Manchester City finished above Manchester United.

  • Comment number 35.

    It has just been confirmed by AFA that if Tigre is relegated they will still be considered 1st Division Champs. Will they cry or celebrate?
    However, they will not be able to play next Libertdores Cup, with the Club who comes out 5th replacing them.

  • Comment number 36.

    If Tigre were to be relegated, do you think Denis Stracqualursi - fresh from a disappointing loan spell at Everton - would return to help fire them straight back up?

  • Comment number 37.

    @Tim (31): Actually, relegations from Second Division (Nacional B) are decided exactly as in Premier Division, using point averages. So, although extremely unlikely, it is mathematically posible for a team to be promoted and relegated at the same time. I don't know if there is any regulation in this regard.

  • Comment number 38.


    I don't think comparing the River Plate situation with the current Rangers predicament has any validity. River Plate's relegation was entirely due to their poor form on the field whist Rangers are in trouble due to financial mismanagement. Despite their troubles Rangers still finished second in the SPL and hence any demotion/relegation would be a matter of breaking financial regulations rather than through losing too many matches.

    My understanding of the current situation in Scotland is that Rangers fate for next season is in the hands of the other 11 SPL clubs. Rangers have been excluded from the newly released fixture list (they have been replaced by 'Club 12') and will only be allowed to play in the SPL in the 2012/13 season if they get support from at least 8 of the 11 clubs in a democratic vote. The chances are that they will get the support they need as most of the other SPL clubs are dependent on Rangers and Celtic for a high proportion of their annual revenue.

  • Comment number 39.

    @ 38 rh28

    Yes although Rangers have clearly been mismanaged they have a large fan base and an excellent stadium. Without them the SPL would basically be a one horse race which is not good for Scottish football.

  • Comment number 40.

    so, Tiger can be relegated even if they played better the other teams this session just because they played worse last session, strange.

  • Comment number 41.

    Thanks for the read, Tim. Supreme article as usual. Listen, lads,; I'm from Argentina and this league isn't exciting at all. This relegation system is just pathetic and unjust. It's been thought out just to save those so-called big teams from relegation, and for the 1st time River got relegated last year tho they (footie tycoons) did everything in their hands to save them. They have been raking it in even with River in our 2nd division. The system is absurd: its rules go against every moral fiber in my body; nothing of this adds up at all! Nearly all of us ARG fans think the same. This league has become downright money-orientated. I really hope you people understand we ARG fans are totally unhappy with our footy authorities and their inane ideas.

  • Comment number 42.

    I leave Luton today flying back to my home in Buenos Aires. A taxi will collect me from from EZE international Airport. My next port of call will be to drop off my bag and kiss the wife and kids. Then i will be off to the Tigre Stadium in Victoria in the northern suburbs of Buenos Aires.
    Here i will join the thousands of other Tigre supporters hoping to see Tigre lift their first title on Sunday. The clamor for tickets will be imense and the Argentine black market is sure to come into play at some point. The maths equations are huge and the writer has actually missed out a few, but probably only to spare his readers from trying to deal with maths at a level they were never even taught at school.
    But this coming Sunday at 7pm GMT 7 games will kick off at same same time. 3 involve who will win the league. and four involve who will go down. But all seven involve Tigre and whatever it takes i will be in the stadium to see it.
    John Boyle

  • Comment number 43.

    To zach 26 you could not be more wrong. This has been the most exciting year of football i have ever know.
    Saludos from a tigre supporter also in Buenos Aires


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