By Jonathan Wilson
There were more than 60,000 fans at the superclasico on Sunday. El Monumental was packed, alive with noise and colour and passion. As the River Plate-Boca Juniors derby kicked off on a perfect carpet of a pitch on a perfect spring day amid a perfect snowstorm of tickertape, it was possible to think all was well in Argentinian football. In 2004, the Observer newspaper ranked attending a superclasico top of its list of 50 sporting things to do before you die, and for a while you could believe that, yes, this is the pinnacle, that the superclasico is as good as it gets. Then the game kicked off.
No matter how extraordinary the atmosphere, there is no disguising the basic fact that, in terms of quality, Argentinian football is in a dreadful state. The superclasico may have ended in drama as Boca came from 2-0 down with quarter of an hour remaining to force a draw and the equaliser may have followed a move of rare quality as Leandro Paredes carried the ball from the edge of his own box and held it up intelligently before working it wide for Christian Chavez to cross superbly for Santiago Silva to flick on for Walter Erviti, but much of the game was scratchy, devoid of rhythm and full of basic errors.
Of course any game, particularly one of high tension, can result in the anxious tedium of mutual cancelling, but watch any Argentinian league game and the lack of finesse is obvious. That would be bad enough but what makes it worse is that, in terms of players, this is a golden age for Argentinian football. The generations that own successive Olympic games are in their peak. No other country has such a glut of mature talent as Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, Javier Mascherano, Carlos Tevez, Angel Di Maria, Gonzalo Higuain, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Pablo Zabaleta and Javier Pastore. It's just that nine of it plays at home: of the squad called up for the friendly against Saudi Arabia in November, none are based in Argentina.
Paredes, who made an impact from the bench and is a genuine talent, is 18. Few doubt that he will leave soon enough. River's Manuel Lanzini, who didn't make the squad on Sunday but is regarded as one of their brightest talents, is 19 and will surely also leave for Europe in a year or two, just as Erik Lamela did at the age of 19 last year.
Players have always gone abroad from Argentina, of course. Even in the thirties, there were the oriundi, the players such as Luisito Monti who followed their families' roots back to Italy in search of a bigger salary and ended up naturalising and playing for the azzurri, but they have never before gone in such large numbers or left so young.
Argentina suffers what is known locally as the talent doughnut: the best players are either teenagers of in their mid-thirties; with a tiny handful of exceptions any player still playing in the Argentinian league in his late twenties just isn't that good.
And yet the country still seems gripped. Top-flight league games this season have drawn an average crowd of over 22,000, which places it sixth in world terms, a truly astonishing figure given not just the quality of the football but also the dilapidated nature of the stadiums and the threat of violence. An average of five people a year have been killed in fan-related violence over the past 30 years and so bad is the situation that home fans are kept back after matches for at least half an hour to allow the away fans to disperse. When River went
2-0 up on Sunday, Boca fans reacted by attacking stewards, hurling them down the steps and beating them as they lay sprawled at on the ground, while there were scuffles in the streets outside the stadium.
The one thing going for the league is that it is hugely competitive: anybody could win it. That's partly because of the short-season structure with two championships each year, and partly because any successful team sees its best players sold off. It's almost an inverse of the draft system used in US sport.
Going to games is not a comfortable experience - and then there's the fact that every game is shown live on television as part of the Futbol Para Todos programme. In 2009, clubs were struggling financially and players were threatening to strike over unpaid wages. So the Kirchner government forcibly took over the television rights from the pay-per-view TyC (who coincidentally are co-owned by Grupo Clarin, a media group fundamentally opposed to Kirchner), paying five times as much per year as the previous deal (900 million pesos per year - about £130million at the time) and made the game free-to-air.
At first sight that seems like an incredibly generous move, but the answers when you start asking why the state would subsidise football are disturbing. It suggests the opiate effect of football, that had the strike gone ahead, the government feared what the consequences might have been. The subsidy played to the knee-jerk populism that characterises Kirchner and football broadcasts are now interspersed with adverts proclaiming the government's achievements: a road built here, fruits distributed there...
But there has been another consequence and that is that there is money to be made in football again. Not enough to keep young players in the country for an extra couple of years but enough that those barra bravas, the hooligan groups who blight each club, who have links to organised crime, have tried to move back in after a few years pursuing more profitable activities such as smuggling. The problem is that new groups have taken their place and aren't prepared to give way, leading to fights not just between one clubs fans and another's, but between different fan groups from the same club.
Little wonder that police often struggle to cope or that the sports pages are constantly reporting outbreaks of violence. The problems of Argentinian football are largely economic, the after-effects of the
2002 default coupling with grotesque mismanagement to cripple what were once great clubs. The terrible irony is that the injection of cash that might have made the situation better has ended up making it worse.