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Argentinos Juniors secure return to the promised land

Argentinos Juniors’ players celebrate after their promotion was confirmed.
Argentinos Juniors’ players celebrate after their promotion was confirmed.
Argentinos Juniors’ players celebrate after their promotion was confirmed.
By Dan Edwards
For the Herald

The Bicho are one of the greatest overachievers in local soccer history and their exile to the National B Division was mercifully short

Argentinos Juniors is one of the great overachieving clubs in Argentine soccer history. The Bicho, located in the middle-class neighbourhood of La Paternal in the heart of the city of Buenos Aires, is one of almost a dozen clubs fiercely associated with its barrio, a curiously local attraction compared to the likes of Boca Juniors, River Plate and San Lorenzo which command a trans-national following. Atlanta, All Boys, Ferro and Nueva Chicago, to name just four, are similarly rooted in their Porteño fortresses of Villa Crespo, Floresta, Caballito and Mataderos respectively, and rivalries between each neighbourhood side tend toward the fierce.

But only the Bicho can claim to have transcended the leafy streets of La Paternal to make a real impact on the national and even world stage. It is one of just eight Argentine clubs to boast a Copa Libertadores in its trophy cabinet, and is famous for bringing to the world perhaps the greatest player ever to set foot on a soccer pitch, Diego Armando Maradona. Another phenomenal number 10, Juan Román Riquelme, also took his first steps in Argentinos’ famed youth ranks before following Diego’s path to Boca, while the club’s three Primera División titles rank it 11th overall amongst the most successful institutions still in operation.

A laudable feat indeed considering the diminutive Estadio Diego Armando Maradona that houses the Bicho’s home games, a three-sided “match-box,” as Juan Sebastián Verón once dismissively dubbed it, which rarely houses more than 10,000 spectators for any but the biggest matches. One of those took place on Saturday, where a packed stadium witnessed Argentinos’ return to the promised land with a 1-0 win over Gimnasia de Jujuy that clinched promotion back to the top flight.

Like an eternity

Ultimately, Argentinos Juniors’ exile to the Nacional B was mercifully short. Having been relegated in the transitional season of 2016 the club spent just 12 months trudging the length and breadth of the nation in its bid to regain its place among the elite. To long-suffering fans, however, it felt like an eternity.

Saturday’s victory was greeted by an outburst of joy among players and supporters alike, from the grandmother that sobbed in the stands to the exuberant individual who embraced coach Gabriel Heinze and (only partly) joking offered him his hand in marriage. For while the numbers suggest that the club’s Nacional B campaign was relatively straightforward, leading the league for months on end, the reality of the season brings back countless tough away days, nailbiting finishes and games that could have gone either way.

If promotion has brought redemption to La Paternal, so too has it redeemed the name of the man in charge around the neighbourhood. Heinze, an Argentina international who represented some of Europe’s biggest clubs during a glittering playing career, found at first that coaching was a different matter altogether. El Gringo’s first attempt on the bench ended in disaster at Godoy Cruz, where he was hired before he had even completed his coaching courses and thus was forbidden by AFA regulations to sit on the bench. An adverse run of results led to the trainer being demonised in Mendoza and he lasted 10 games before receiving his marching orders, winning on just two occasions.

Underwhelming start

A similarly underwhelming start at Argentinos meant the vultures were circling again at the start of this season. Heinze, a blunt, straight-talking character, brushed off the criticism; but he did not forget. “They insulted me so much and they did not manage to break me, why should I believe their praise now?” he asked rhetorically of reporters when the Bicho fans began finally to sing in his favour. He could not avoid the limelight forever, though. A young, dynamic team led by the likes of academy graduates Esteban Rolón, Facundo Barboza and Nicolás Freire cut a swathe through the Nacional B, leaving Heinze overwhelmed — but still with his intensely logical head firmly screwed on — when promotion was assured.

“I was sought by the club when everything was going up in flames. The directors put themselves personally on the line when we went through tough times and that means a great deal,” he said amid the euphoria of the weekend’s victory. “I want to apologise for my character and my manners, which sometimes led to a thorny atmosphere. In truth, what they have done for the institution is enormous and that is why the fans should be content.”

Heinze’s words revealed the third piece of the puzzle in restoring Argentinos to the top flight. For the board headed by Cristian Malaspina has done wonders in reverting the chaos and neglect left by former club and AFA president Luis Segura and his son following the family’s long reign in La Paternal. Faced with a mountain of debt from previous administrations, Malaspina has returned the club to its roots, nurturing the stars of the future and resisting the temptation to spend big in its bid to go up.

The Primera División will bring new challenges for the Bicho, but nobody can doubt that the club will continue to punch above its weight under the guidance of a coach and president who are making all the right noises despite their inexperience.

@danedwardsgoal

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