River’s Inferno

Pavone Penalty Miss
Pavone laments a missed penalty kick against Belgrano.

River’s Inferno
The Drama of the Millionaires: River Plate, the team with the most Argentine football championships, will be demoted to the second-class league for the first time in its 110 year history to the tears of its fans and players
El País: El drama de los ‘millonarios’
Alejandro Rebossio reporting from Buenos Aires June 26, 2011

It would be like Real Madrid descending to the Second Division. River Plate, one of the two most popular clubs in Argentina and the one that has won the most league championships (33), has been demoted from the top league for the first time in its 110 year history. Yesterday, at the Monumental stadium in the port neighborhood of Núñez, during the second leg of the promotion/relegation playoff, it played to a 1-1 tie with Belgrano, which had been the fourth-place team in Nacional B (the second class league). River’s 2-0 defeat in the first leg of the playoff, in Córdoba, doomed it to a historical descent.

A good part of Argentina was paralyzed by yesterday’s game: the many citizens of Buenos Aires and other regions who are millonarios and those who enjoyed their suffering (“Millionaires” is the nickname for the successful club’s supporters). Through the mismanagement of its directors, River has become the most indebted club in Argentina, affecting its player signings and thus dooming it to three consecutive mediocre seasons. The players knew they had to win by two goals to stay afloat. From the moment the eleven players coached by Juan José López, a former star striker for the team, took the field, the 49,500 fans of the red-and-whites made their message clear: “¡Esta tarde, cueste lo que cueste, tenemos que ganar!” (“This afternoon, we have to win at all costs!”) they sang. Nary a one of the 2500 Cordoban fans, who arrived at the stadium full of hope and were pelted with rocks by River’s soccer hooligans in the street, could be heard over the din.

The River players, whose total salaries are 10 times higher than Belgrano’s, began attacking in a disorganized fashion, as they had in other recent games. The Cordoban outfit, though it hasn’t played in the top league for four years, took the field like they regarded the River players as their equals. At four minutes, César Mansanelli scored a goal on a free kick, but referee Sergio Pezzota annulled it. River rapidly responded, and Mariano Pavone, formerly a striker for Betis in Spain, trapped the ball with his chest outside the area and with his right foot directed the ball inside keeper Carlos Olave’s left post. River took a 1-0 lead, which tranquilized its anxiety, but Belgrano equalized thanks to its midfield pressure. The atmosphere froze up like the austral winter air lashing Buenos Aires. The sun shone sometimes, but it was for Belgrano.

In the second half, River’s nerves got worse as it chewed on the great tragedy of it all. Coach López ordered the players to attack at will, a very different approach from the stingy and speculative play the bench installed this year to avoid descent to the Segunda. At no point did it look like the River of old, which always took pride in its high class, in contrast to the fighting spirit which defines its arch-rival Boca Juniors.

The errors of the team’s defense were exposed. The defensive midfielder Guillermo Farré, who had distinguished himself by stealing the ball all game, achieved the glory of making an interception in the middle of a counterattack and tied the game 15 minutes into the second half. More than one Millionaire began to sob. River would have to win 3-1.

Hope arrived 15 minutes later. A penalty for River Plate. It soon became a tragedy. Olave saved Pavone’s shot. The star of this river, defensive midfielder Matías Almeyda, who couldn’t play because he was suspended, looked disconsolate. Sadness overwhelmed Núñez and the players, who looked like they’d already been defeated. River, the team of Alfredo Di Stéfano and Enzo Francescoli, had never fallen so low. In the 89th minute, the worst chapter in the history of the Millionaires began, as some fans began to throw stones and invade the field. The game was called off early. The police surrounded the field and the players, who covered themselves in tears. Sirens sounded in Buenos Aires, and security forces mobilized to avert violence. The fans of Boca Juniors celebrated. Those of River Plate wept over a monumental defeat.

Inside and outside the stadium, hundreds of River fans destroyed everything they could find. The health authorities of Buenos Aires later reported that 72 people were wounded, and at least 15 police were assaulted; four of those are in grave condition.

The fans, and not only Los Borrachos del Tablón (The Drunks of the Plank), destroyed the seats of the stadium and the doors and windows of the club headquarters, broke into and looted shops in the area, and assaulted journalists, police, and club directors. The hooligans unsuccessfully tried to break into the locker rooms to assault the players.

The River players were shut inside the stadium and were not allowed to talk to the press. The 2500 Belgrano fans who came to Buenos Aires were not able to leave the stands, caught between festivities and fear, while the 49,500 Millionaire sympathizers moved away from them.

In the first game of the playoff, in Córdoba, some River fans had taken the field to assault the players. For that reason, the Argentine government considered having the game played without fans in attendance, but it finally opted against that and posted 2,200 police on site instead. They were still insufficient to control the ire on the darkest day in the history of this fallen giant.

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