2016: A year in Argentine football

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Just as last year brought us institutional chaos at the AFA, a confusing, bloated Primera and heartache and despair for the national team, 2016 delivered much of the same. Grondona’s 30-team monstrosity is still alive and after another short Transición, the league switched to another year-long championship in August but the vacuum left by Don Julio’s death is felt as keenly as ever. Empty pockets and unpaid clubs have provided the backdrop to another ultimately disappointing year in Argentine football.

January

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Almost as if to compensate for the lack of things to talk about other than transfer gossip in January, Argentine football, in its infinite wisdom, decides to play a series of friendly clásicos. Who would have thought the fiery atmosphere of a bitter rivalry played in the heat of a South American summer with few real repurcussions would result in such aggression? River Plate beat Boca Juniors twice but it was the wild first encounter that resulted in five red cards that really caught the headlines. However, that was made to look like a mere scuffle in comparison to the brawl that saw the clásico Platense abandoned amid a flurry of punches and kicks.

Over in Europe and Lionel Messi picked up his fifth Ballon d’Or despite suffering another defeat in a major final for Argentina the summer before and Matías Kranevitter finalised his move away from River Plate with Atlético Madrid adding to their Argentine contingent. The youngster wasn’t the only one to earn a move to Europe with Serie A club Palermo taking notice of Guillermo Barros Schelotto’s good work in charge of Lanús. Kranevitter’s step up hasn’t gone exactly to plan so far but has been a roaring success compared to Barros Schelotto’s brief stay in Italy…

February

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Confusion of Barros Schelotto’s coaching badges prevented him from entering the dugout so he swiftly resigned from Palermo but as the league season in Argentina got underway, results meant his next job wasn’t too far away.

Despite claiming a league and cup double at the end of 2015, Rodolfo Arruabarrena was immediately under pressure as Boca Juniors boss and a heavy defeat to San Lorenzo in the Supercopa meant El Vasco was walking a tightrope. A poor start to the Primera season and before the end of the month, Arruabarrena was shown the exit at La Bombonera.

The Torneo Transición took Argentine levels of league complexity to new levels with the 30 teams split into two zones and an ‘interzonal match’ scheduled for each round to ensure we still got our fill of clásicos. February’s derbies had their fair share of drama with Rosario Central easing to victory over Newell’s to end Lucas Bernardi’s short spell in charge, Ramón Wanchope Ábila snatching a late equaliser for Huracán against San Lorenzo and Lisandro López further endearing himself to the Racing faithful with a spectacular last minute bicycle kick in the clásico de Avellaneda.

All six Argentine representatives got their Copa Libertadores campaigns underway and Huracán were dealt a cruel blow when their bus crashed on the way to the airport in Venezuela. Thankfully there were no more serious injuries but Diego Mendoza and Patricio Toranzo saw their seasons ended early due to their injuries.

And Argentina international Ezequiel Lavezzi became one of the highest paid players in world football by signing a deal with Chinese club Hebei China Fortune.

March

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So with Arruabarrena out, Boca turned to an old face and only recently back on the market Guillermo Barros Schelotto. Days later, El Mellizo took charge of his first superclásico and that can be the only excuse for what was one of the dullest matches of the year. Of course, it being Argieball and there being one month of the season gone, Boca weren’t the only side already swinging the axe.

Estudiantes swept past Gimnasia in the clásico Platense signalling the end for Pedro Troglio with El Lobo, Julio César Falcioni made a return to Banfield and Caruso Lombardi marked his Sarmiento tenure by having a scrap with some supporters/barras at a petrol station.

Argentina resumed World Cup qualification and with Lionel Messi named in the starting eleven for the first time in this campaign, Gerardo Martino’s side earned a hard fought 2-1 win over Chile in Santiago. Days later, the five-time Ballon d’Or winner notched his 50th goal for La Albiceleste as they got back on track with another three points against Bolivia.

April

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April was a relatively quiet month but it did provide us with the mind-numbing spectacle of the clásico weekend . Back-to-back derby matches perhaps sounded a good idea at the time when someone at AFA headquarters floated the idea but the reality was the worst possible advert for the Primera. Fernando Gago’s misfortune continued and after returning from one achilles injury suffered in a superclásico, the midfielder was forced off again with a repeat.

In the Copa Libertadores, San Lorenzo became the sole Argentine casualty as Pablo Guede’s side crashed out of their annual ‘group of death’ after defeat away to Toluca. The remaining five representatives all progressed to the last 16 with Boca Juniors beating Racing to top group three and Huracán coming a distant second to the impressive Atlético Nacional.

And in Federal B, 13-year-old Darío Roa broke Sergio Agüero’s old record when he became the youngest player to make his first team debut when making a late cameo for Racing de Trelew.

May

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With the Copa América Centenario and European Championships looming, domestic football was wrapping up around the world and in Argentina, Lanús lifted their second Primera title after deservedly beating San Lorenzo in the Transición final. Jorge Almirón’s side had eased to the top of Zone B and picked apart Pablo Guede’s side when it counted leaving Estudiantes to beat Godoy Cruz in the Copa Libertadores playoff between the two runners up. In the Descenso, Caruso did what he was employed to do and oversaw a dramatic late Sarmiento rescue job to condemn Argentinos Juniors to the Nacional B.

River said goodbye to goalkeeper Marcelo Barovero at the end of the season having been dumped out the Copa Libertadores by Independiente del Valle with the goalkeeper agreeing to a move to Liga MX and Racing bid farewell to the iconic Diego Milito following Lucas Pratto and Atlético Mineiro ending their hopes. Central suffered an agonising defeat to Atlético Nacional leaving Boca as the sole survivors after a dramatic penalty shootout win over Nacional.

Gonzalo Higuaín came to the Copa America in rich form after breaking Gunnar Nordahl’s 66-year-old record by scoring 36 goals for Napoli in the Serie A season but even that couldn’t prevent Juventus sweeping to a fifth consecutive title, thanks in part to Carlos Tevez’s replacement, Paulo Dybala.

Lionel Messi and Javier Mascherano helped Barcelona to another league title and all travelled with Gerardo Martino’s squad to finalise preparations with a friendly win over Honduras.

June

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With 2015’s agonising Copa América still raw, Gerardo Martino took his side to the United States for the latest edition, marking 100 years of the tournament, and preparation could barely have been worse. Messi, injured in the warm up against Honduras, needed to fly back to Barcelona for a court hearing over his alleged tax fraud and so flew directly to the camp just days before the opener with champions Chile.

However, despite missing the highly anticipated rematch of last year’s final, Argentina made a winning start to their campaign and hopes were raised that this could be the year that the trophy drought was ended. Messi returned and as Argentina dispatched of Panama, Bolivia, Venezuela and the United States only Chile (again) stood between glory or a third successive final defeat. Martino’s side had already beaten La Roja and now they were armed with Messi, who had dazzled against Venezuela and the hosts, surely this was the time?

120 minutes of frustration punctuated by the now customary Higuaín final misses ended in penalties and when Messi blazed over Argentina’s first, the writing was on the wall. Chile triumphed again and in the aftermath, a wounded Messi told reporters that he would be retiring from international football.

During the tournament the players had criticised the Argentine Football Association (AFA) for their lack of organisation and while this could have had some bearing on Messi’s decision, the warnings that things could get worse were clear as Diego Maradona weighed in and said new FIFA president Gianni Infantino saw him as the man to clean up Argentine football.

Meanwhile, Talleres secured promotion back to the top flight after a twelve year absence and Pablo Guede resigned as San Lorenzo manager.

July

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Despite choking in the Copa América final, Juventus showed no signs of hesitation in breaking the Serie A transfer record for Gonzalo Higuaín as the 28-year-old made the controversial switch from Napoli to the champions. The rest of the world may have been staggered by the €90 million price tag but the Bianconeri were confident they were signing a player who would guarantee another scudetto.

With the transfer market in full flow, Manchester City completed a complicated deal for Gerónimo Rulli, which saw him immediately go back to Real Sociedad, Paris Saint-Germain snapped up Rosario Central’s impressive youngster Giovani Lo Celso, Axel Werner headed for Atlético Madrid and Vélez Sarsfield’s Javier Toledo moved to Fiorentina.

And, Julio Olarticoechea took charge of the under-23 Olympic squad but just like their senior counterparts, preparations were poor. The AFA made a hash of the selection and meant Paulo Dybala had the summer off, injury ruled out Manuel Lanzini and then the squad’s hotel was ransacked while playing a warm up match in Mexico.

August

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Needless to say the Olympics was a disaster for Argentina and between Olarticoechea’s conservative tactics, the understrength squad and misfiring players, La Albiceleste crashed out in the group stages after a draw with Honduras in the final match. The under-20s fared better in the annual COTIF tournament but just like the senior side suffered heartbreak in the final. Two late extra-time goals clinched it for Spain and meant even the youth sides were unable to lift the curse.

Gerardo Martino’s resignation prior to the Olympics prompted a new managerial search and once several high-profile candidates were ruled out (mainly as a result of the AFA being broke), Edgardo Bauza took the reins. It wasn’t the morale boosting appointment that supporters craved but El Patón almost immediately got Lionel Messi to reconsider his international retirement and so his first task was a success.

Lanús added to their Transición title by beating Racing to the Copa Bicentenario and paved the way for Facundo Sava to leave El Cilindro days before the start of the league season and Marcelo Gallardo added to his impressive medal collection as River Plate defeated Independiente Santa Fe to lift the Recopa Sudamericana.

And amid all this excitement and the new league season getting underway, the European transfer window was closing. Jonathan Calleri finally got his European move with West Ham ending his ‘stay’ with Deportivo Maldonado, Gabriel Mercado swapped River to join Jorge Sampaoli’s Argentine revolution at Sevilla, Watford pulled off something of a coup and snapped by Roberto Pereyra and youngsters Cristian Espinoza and Giovanni Simeone switched to Villarreal and Genoa respectively. Good news for young Gio, bad news for father Diego, who was robbed of a reported $10,000 when visiting his son in Italy.

September

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Lionel Messi returned from his brief retirement to start for Argentina as Edgardo Bauza began his tenure against Uruguay in Mendoza. Despite Paulo Dybala being sent off before half time, La Albiceleste claimed a vital victory in their World Cup qualification efforts thanks to Messi’s solitary goal but injury forced the captain out of the subsequent trip to Venezuela. The dependence on the world’s best player was clear and Bauza’s side snatched a draw to remain in a perilous position in the table. Messi returned to Barcelona and was thrown back into the action only to pick up another slight injury and when Bauza criticised the club, the AFA had to quickly offer an apology.

Elsewhere, Carlos Tevez landed himself in hot water after yelling ‘La concha puta de tu hermana‘ in the direction of referee Germán Delfino. The outburst earned El Apache a red card and a three-game ban and Tevez expressed his frustration at the media and football in Argentina. Juan Sebastián Verón turned out for a local semi-professional side as rumours increased that the Brujita could make a playing return for Estudiantes, Jonás Gutiérrez signed for Defensa y Justicia and Dani Osvaldo, fired from Boca after having a cigarette in the dressing room, decided to call time on his career and focus on his music.

October

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Where Argentina’s footballers had failed in three consecutive finals, the futsal team triumphed and for the first time ever, La Albiceleste were crowned world champions after beating Russia in Colombia.  As the nation’s futsal celebrated its greatest achievement, the football team slumped even further as a draw with Peru and a home defeat to Paraguay left Edgardo Bauza feeling some early heat and World Cup qualification under serious threat.

Back in the Primera, Newell’s Old Boys were enjoying a return to form and thanks to a last minute Maxi Rodríguez goal La Lepra claimed the bragging rights in the clásico rosarino for the first time in eight years.

Elsewhere, Mauro Icardi incurred the wrath of the Inter Milan ultras after the release of his autobiography and the thinly-veiled threat that he could bring some criminals over from Argentina and have them all killed, Diego Maradona and Seba Verón exchanged heated words at Peace match and Sebastián Pol made headlines in Chile after booting a supporter in the head.

November

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Argentina’s troubles grew further after being humbled by Brazil and although Lionel Messi orchestrated a vital win over Colombia, the squad were disgruntled by the media reaction and rumours that Ezequiel Lavezzi had been smoking marijuana in the camp, so announced a complete blackout. World Cup qualification was all the more complicated after FIFA awarded Chile a victory over Bolivia and so Edgardo Bauza has it all to do in 2017.

Life at Barcelona was far more simple for Messi and the five-time Ballon d’Or winner notched his 500th career goal in a 2-1 win over Sevilla while in England, his national team roommate, Sergio Agüero reached the 150 milestone for Manchester City.

Boca Juniors ended a nine-month wait for an away win as Guillermo Barros Schelotto began to turn things around and motor up the Primera table but Rosario Central ended any hopes of international football in 2017 when they exacted revenge in the Copa Argentina.

Diego Milito held his farewell match at the Cilindro and as one iconic player bowed out, Juan Sebastián Verón all but confirmed his return with Estudiantes.

San Lorenzo were knocked out of the Copa Sudamericana by Chapecoense before the tragic events that unfolded prior to the final in Colombia.

December

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Just as they began the year in the headlines, Carlos Tevez ensured that he and Boca dominated the media at the end of 2016. A dazzling peformance gave Guillermo Barros Schelotto’s side victory in the superclásico and sent Los Xeneizes top of the table but it proved to be Tevez’s penultimate game before a sensational transfer to Shanghai Shenhua.

If Tevez is now to be viewed as part of Argentina’s past then Lucas Alario is very much the future and the striker scored a hat-trick to hand River Plate the Copa Argentina title. A great deal of speculation followed regarding Marcelo Gallardo but the Copa Libertadores winning coach agreed to remain at the Monumental for another year.

Two other coaches making news were Diego Simeone, who was named as the IFFHS best manager of the year and Gerardo Martino, who will take charge of new MLS club Atlanta United and snapped up Miguel Almirón from Lanús.

Argentina goalkeeper Nahuel Guzmán was the hero in Mexico after saving three penalties and helping Tigres to the title as the rest of the footballing world enjoyed Christmas.

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