Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Tim Vickery in South America

The playing days of lumbering Argentine striker Martin Palermo were one prolonged battle of a man to overcome his own limitations. Sensing and identifying with the essential nobility of the struggle, the fans of Boca Juniors took him to their hearts. Palermo's career ended on Saturday on a note of appropriate drama. His last touch as a professional, deep into stoppage time, was a nod down which set up team-mate Christian Cellay to score Boca's equaliser against Gimnasia of La Plata.

To add spice to the occasion, it was an important goal - and not just because Palermo is from La Plata, a fan and an ex-player of Estudiantes, Gimnasia's local rivals. In a frantic last day of the league season, a win for Gimnasia would mean they would not be one of the two teams to be automatically relegated. Instead they would go into a play-off against the team finishing third in the Second Division - but that late Boca goal worsened their position. Now they must meet fellow strugglers Huracan, with the losers going down, and the winners earning a chance to save themselves in a play-off against San Martin of San Juan.

However, it is the other play-off tie which will attract much more attention, because it features River Plate, one of the giants of Argentine football and the team with most league titles to their credit. This is not supposed to happen. The way that relegation works in Argentina is designed to save the big clubs from a temporary slump. Two short, separate championships are played per year. Relegation is worked out on an average of points accumulated over three years, or six championships.

For a massive club like River Plate, flirting with relegation requires a prolonged period of incompetence - and that is what has happened.

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