Many in Argentina head to the Atlantic coastal city of Mar del Plata to get away from the summer heat of Buenos Aires and enjoy the sea air, the beaches and the nightlife; Argentina’s footballers it would seem make the journey for a good old dust up and after another embarrassing episode in a supposed friendly last night, the wisdom over these fixtures is called into question.
The 35, 000 capacity Estadio José Maria Minella, which was built for the 1978 World Cup, played host to almost all of the Torneo de Verano (Summer tournament) and in an effort to increase revenues for the clubs, fixtures between Argentina’s biggest sides and most fierce rivals are organised as past of their preseason preparations.
On Sunday evening it was the turn of Estudiantes de La Plata and Club de Gimnasia y Esgrima La Plata – the clásico Platense – and the result was more of a pitched battle than a football match. Carlos Auzqui’s early goal had given El Pincha an early lead and the second half had already been delayed due to Gimnasia’s supporters inflammatory act of unfurling banners stolen from their bitter rivals when Estudiantes full-back and Uruguayan international Álvaro Pereira was shown a red card for a challenge more at home in a Jackie Chan movie. Pereira’s thinly disguised kung-fu kick clearance required an ambulance on the playing field after it left Facundo Oreja momentarily unconscious but the worst was yet to come.
Creeping towards full time, promising young Estudiantes midfielder Santiago Ascacibar scythed down Antonio Medina as he broke away and almost before referee Silvio Trucco could even brandish another red card, players and staff invaded the pitch. Amid a flurry of punches and kicks the situation spiralled out of control and former Argentina international goalkeeper, Mariano Andújar could be seen punching several opponents before himself being floored and then repeatedly kicked.
The police and Trucco decided it was enough and the match was suspended before the allotted injury time could be completed, bringing to an end an utterly scandalous preseason.
Only one week earlier, Mar del Plata witnessed similar scenes when a fight broke out during the first superclásico of the summer between Boca Juniors and River Plate. On this occasion, Boca were already down to nine men after having defenders Gino Peruzzi and Daniel Díaz sent off, when River defender Jonathan Maidana headbutted Carlos Tevez and sparked a bench-clearing ruckus. This time the match was completed but the AFA were forced to investigate further provacative behaviour from Boca duo, Díaz and Daniel Osvaldo. Both players when leaving the field gestured to the River supporters to only add fuel to the already heated atmosphere and herein lies perhaps part of the issue.
Since June 2013, when a Lanús supporter was killed by police in La Plata, away fans have not been permitted at Argentine football and so all of these famous clásicos have been one-sided, home affairs when they have clashed competitively. When they meet however in these supposed friendlies on neutral ground, it is open to both supporters and it is a rare chance to goad the old enemy. So, while for most countries, preseason is more a tranquil time to see new signings and players to obtain match fitness, in Argentina it is often a fiery, derby atmosphere.
This is by no means an explanation and certainly not a justification of the behaviour of the players but there could be argument that the fractious atmosphere in the stands spills over and onto the pitch.
Pumped full of adrenaline for the occasion there is also little repurcussion for their actions so players can go out and show off their huevos by clattering into a rival player but avoid any real sort of sanction. Potentially missing the next friendly is hardly much of a deterrent and although Boca’s suspensions perhaps cost them the second superclásico in Mendoza, they will have everyone available when the more meaningful league and Copa Libertadores matches begin.
The AFA is yet to say what the outcome of Estudiantes’ and Gimnasia’s skirmish will be but while both clubs have been apologetic, they have made noises that it shouldn’t impact the start of the league season. Estudiantes president, Juan Sebastián Verón suggested the the clubs discipline this internally and that although sanctions would be respected, it is important that they are across the board and not directed at individuals. Gimnasia midfielder Roberto Brum echoed this: “We are all remorseful. The idea is to try and minimize [the penalty] because if [the AFA] need to sanction one, they need to sanction all. What we all want is that they don’t punish us in the league.”
In Argentina the year started with 11 “summer friendlies”:
62 yellow cards
16 red cards
1 game abandoned
— Mr. Numbers (@Mister_Numbers) February 1, 2016
These statistics don’t make good reading for the eleven Torneo de Verano games held in Mar del Plata this January and is certainly another thing that the AFA and the clubs need to look at.
A full-blooded match against your most bitter rivals is hardly an ideal way of building fitness ahead of the league season that begins next weekend. An increased chance of injury is one risk but also managers feel somewhat hand-tied in trying new formations or players given that the result of a preseason friendly is suddenly of great significance.
So why then would these Argentine clubs want to participate in such tournaments? Well, for the same reason that Liverpool may traipse around Asia or Manchester United cover thousands of miles in the United States every summer – Money. These clásicos represent by far and away the most lucrative occasions for the clubs during a time of the year when they would otherwise be playing friendlies on the training ground in bibs. With big this financial carrot dangling in front, change is unlikely and so in just the same way as Premier League supporters question the decision to play limited opposition on the other side of the world just before the season begins, it will have little impact at the top.
At the end of the forthcoming season, Argentine football should fall in line with the European calendar and play a year-long season from August to May and so perhaps there will be an opportunity for the likes of Boca and River to travel to the United States and partake in other tournaments. For now, we can be thankful that another Torneo de Verano has passed and the genuinly important matters of the league and Copa Libertadores can create the headlines.