March 8, 2014
Short tournaments — exciting end
For the Herald
They say the quality of first di- vision local soccer is poor and they’re right apart from suspicions of corruption, but nobody can argue that it’s not exciting. One cannot remember a tournament reaching the last round of matches with four teams having title chances — San Lorenzo, Lanús, Newels Old Boys, Vélez Sarsfield — and that these four teams will face each other.
Yet amid all the excitement, Argentine Football Association (AFA) chief Julio Grondona has once again brought up the idea of changing back to one long championship with two rounds , and worse, to have a bigger tournament with 42 teams, with national A and B clubs together or 32 with the 20 Division A and top 10 Division B clubs. He wants the modification for the 2014/15 season. Grondona says it would be economically better for clubs but he is completely wrong. He also says he wants less stressful tournaments, but if he cannot take the stress at his age, he should resign. (actually, Grondona is two years younger than this columnist.)
First of all, changing the tournament format — and it has been done frequently — is not going to improve the standard of play, of referees or club officials which ruin clubs. One long tournament often ends in a champion a few weeks before the end or a fight between two clubs with the rest having lost interest just like most fans have. A larger tournament of 30 or 42 clubs has no logic. It would lower the standard even more. It might have some interest if played in two sections with leading teams then vowing for the title, but that hardly justifies such a strange idea. Where did it come from? It originally came from the government to enlarge its “Free soccer TV for all” programme and consequently its propaganda machine.
This column has repeatedly criticized the AFA, but they did comply with their own law by postponing Lanús’ last game away to Newell’s Old Boys while Lanús played midweek home and away matches in the South American Cup final. By doing this, the AFA also had to postpone the other match (Vélez Sarsfield v San Lorenzo) with the other two teams involved in the title fight so that they play at the same time (6pm) on Sunday.
Clubs were generally erratic in this close championship — with 70 percent of matches either drawn or decided by one goal — and it looked as if nobody wanted to win it. The best soccer was undoubtedly played by last season’s final tournament winner Newell’s Old Boys, but they dramatically lost their touch to pick up only four points out of the last 21. Yet they were still at the top of the table after the 15th round as other teams faltered. On the other hand, Vélez Sarsfield, who had been named among the title favourites at the beginning of the season, started poorly and were only 13th in the table and 13 points behind leaders Newell’s after 11 games. Then they picked up 17 out of 21 points in their next seven games to shoot into title contention. So Vélez Sarsfield are the team in form.
San Lorenzo and Lanús have also been erratic, the latter by sometimes fielding below strength teams while reserving players for cup games. If Lanús gains the league title — by winning at Newell’s while San Lorenzo loses at Vélez — they could become the first team to win an international cup and league title at the same time. (Other clubs have won a cup and league title in the same season, but not at the same time.) Lanús would still manage it if San Lorenzo draws, because at the moment Lanús has a better goal difference than the other four contestants.
San Lorenzo, as a matter of fact, could have won the title last week-end if they had beaten Estudiantes de La Plata in the 0-0 draw. Referee Pablo Lunati did not give them a penalty at the insistence of a linesman who must have been the only one to see a foul. But then so many matches were decided by refereeing mistakes which practically decided the championship, as has been the case in previous seasons.
Vélez Sarsfield, as mentioned, is the team in form and the odds are on it beating San Lorenzo at home to take the title. Vélez Sarsfield has always been the club to make least team changes and that counts for a lot. They have had the same coach, Ricardo Gareca, for several years without sudden tactical changes under any new coach and that counts for a lot also. Gareca talked about leaving at the end of the season when things were not going so well, but that seems to have been forgotten.
Talk of playing the game without fans because recent confrontations between these clubs produced two deaths, just showed what local soccer and its connection with hooligans gangs has descended to.
San Lorenzo improved since coach Antonio Pizzi stopped making repeated team changes — which is logical — but they were still erratic and failed to take their chances. San Lorenzo were close to relegation not so long ago and their improvement can also be put down to having better than average club officials.
Lanús players, in spite of resting, may have their minds more on the South American Cup in which they are favourites, having managed a 1-1 draw in their away leg last week.
Newell’s Old Boys need to recover the form that has suddenly deserted them and also their goal scoring power, as they have hardly got any goals recently — only four in their last four games. On the other hand, they are worried that too many free kicks against them have ended in goals. Surely, that can be fixed by the coach ... but can he fix spirit of the players?