By Nacho Tierno
Independiente plays some of the most interesting top flight football in Argentina and has arguably one of the best squads in the Primera División. Although these may be early days, since Ariel Holan took over the team has been displaying a modern-dynamic football and although Copa Libertadores football couldn’t be guaranteed for next season via top five finish, it remains a possibility.
At the halfway point this season, Holan inherited a team from Gabriel Milito with a defence that conceded the fewest goals but struggled to materialise the chances created on the offensive. A switch to a 4-2-3-1 formation and a more direct football solved the scoring problem. Even a reshuffle at the back four that saw the departures of the most influential players after the summer break (centre backs Hernán Pellerano and skipper Víctor Cuesta) and the doping ban of Nicolás Figal didn’t affect the defensive structure of the team.
Moreover, the team put in good performances, gaining 31 out of 48 points (only losing to Boca Juniors away). The squad is made up of a young group of players that will attract more than one European team sooner than later; especially the attacking midfield trio of Emiliano Rigoni, Ezequiel Barco and Martín Benítez who form a very exciting partnership.
Rigoni, Independiente’s best player in the second half of the season, is an unusual two-footed winger; Barco, an 18-year-old, very talented academy product of enormous potential; and Benitez, a ‘Hazard-like’ skillful left winger who can also be deployed as a second striker. Although Emmanuel Gilgliotti hasn’t fulfilled expectations since returning from China, Holan has alternatives for the main striker position in the prolific scorer Lucas Albertengo, and Leandro Fernández, both of whom have just returned from long-term injuries.
Despite all this positive context, the atmosphere in the Estadio Libertadores de América, where Independiente plays home fixtures, is far from ideal. The crowd seems to be stuck in the good old times, too sentimentally attached to a team that won nine domestic titles and was a dominant force in South America during the 1960s, 70s and 80s, winning seven Copas Libertadores and two Intercontinental cups.
The perception among the supporters is that Independiente should belong to the world football elite despite only having won two national leagues titles and three Supercopas/ Copa Sudamericanas (the second most important competition in South America) since 1989. Their last Copa Libertadores was lifted in 1984, the last league title was 2002 and relegation to the second tier (Primera B Nacional) happened in 2013 for the first time in their history. The 15-year drought of domestic league titles is starting to feel like a heavy weight to bear. There is no patience, no room for gradual improvement.
During the 2016-2017 season, the team struggled to deal with the pressure at home and only managed to win four out of 15 matches, dropping far too many points (25). The away record (the best in the Primera División) suggests that when the players can isolate themselves from the demands of the crowd, Independiente is a top team.
To only blame the supporters for the lack of patience and long term perspective would not be fair. After all, they are pretty much like any other passion-driven fans from Argentina. The only difference is that for 30 years Independiente was able to challenge River and Boca and it is likely that they are now finding it difficult to accept that the situation has changed so drastically.
There is something more toxic at the club than the influence of the lack of patience from the fans: a board with little previous experience in football club management. Led by Hugo Moyano, his sons and their circle of trust, they rely on political connections and money from the union (Camioneros) to drive the club with no real long-term vision.
Hugo Moyano, a self-declared Independiente supporter, has been the most powerful union leader in Argentina since 1992. Far from representing worker’s right, he used the union to build himself as a powerful man in politics.
Back in 2014 when promotion to the Primera División was looking unlikely and the club was struggling financially, Hugo Moyano prepared the political scenario to land his troops at the club. Javier Cantero, the preceding president who started a public battle to eradicate the barra bravas (hooligans) and whose administration failed at a financial and sporting level, had no option but to walk out after a bizarre club meeting that included a show of flying chairs initiated by some unidentified club members. The Moyanos denied any involvement in the violent episode but this remains unclear and has never been investigated.
Moyano’s impact at the club was immediate and promotion was achieved after winning a play-off against Huracán.
What came after is a succession of managers, dubious accounting and an open door policy for hooligans to return to the club. The doors were so wide open that the barra bravas were allowed to use the club stadium for a year-end football match and a barbecue.
The financial situation of the club is unsustainable in the long term. It is well known that Independiente has one of the highest debts in Argentine football (more than 600 million Argentinean Pesos). However, since the Moyano clan has been in charge, the club has spent almost 200 million Argentine pesos in new signings. Maybe Hugo Moyano’s influence at the Argentine Football Association (AFA), where he has been recently elected as vice-president, and his ability to attract sponsors and renegotiate conditions with the existing ones, will be sufficient to put the financial issues under the carpet for a while. The question is what is going to happen the day he and his sons are no longer around.
The revolving door of managers is something difficult to understand. On one hand, the board has shown a clinical eye in the manager selection process. On the other hand, since Hugo Moyano has been in charge, the club has had five managers in less than four years.
Omar De Felippe left after achieving promotion. He was replaced with Jorge Almirón, who left after ten months in charge even though the team finished fourth during his first tournament in charge. The board gave no time to Almirón and sacked him only 13 fixtures into his second tournament due to an unconvincing start.
Mauricio Pellegrino was hired to cover the vacancy. Under him the team just felt short of qualifying for the Copa Libertadores after finishing in fifth and losing the play off final against Independiente’s neighbours and fiercest rival, Racing Club.
Pellegrino’s first full tournament in charge (a short 15-fixture tournament organised to align the local calendar with the European season) saw the team finishing sixth and just missing qualification for the Copa Libertadores again.
Despite the lack of success in qualifying for the Copa Libertadores, Pellegrino developed a team that showed signs of improvements and moments of attractive football. This was not sufficient for a board that decided not to extend Pellegrino’s contract. The paradox is that while the Moyanos were making this decision, the Primera División title was being lifted by Lanus managed by…Jorge Almirón.
Almirón was not the only manager to deliver results after leaving Independiente. Pellegrino moved to Spain and led a recently-promoted Alavés to avoid relegation and reach the Copa del Rey final where they lost to Barcelona.
The next manager on the list was Gabriel Millito. A club legend and a Pep Guardiola apprentice, whose ideas were in line with the Independiente good-old-days style. All this plus a successful previous spell at Estudiantes made him the perfect candidate for the job. However, he resigned after only half a season in charge with the team stagnating just above the middle of the table. The results did not reach expectations but the perception is that with appropriate support from the board, the manager could have been able to revert the situation. In other words, Milito’s possession-based football needed more time but the board did nothing to release the pressure that was coming from the stands to stop the departure. Whether Ariel Holan is going to have the support and time he requires regardless of titles achievements remains to be seen.
The short term perspective and impatient glory-hungry supporters are problems that affect almost every ambitious Primera División club. However, this is exacerbated even further with Independiente because of the explosive mix of misleading management and disproportionate nostalgia for the golden era and continental titles.
What is certain is that something needs to change at the club. And change should begin with the supporters because it’s certainly not going to come from the board. Instead of demanding trophies, they should look at the bigger picture, realise the potential that this young squad has, ask for clarifications on the financial and football long-term plans for the club, and question the complicity between the board and the hooligans. Otherwise, the Moyano heritage could lead to another crisis similar to that seen in 2013 rather than a return to the successful times.
Born in Buenos Aires, lives in London. Racing club supporter, Spurs follower (in that order) and Old Actonians player. Full time fan of the beautiful game, work is a distraction.
Follow Nacho on Twitter here @nachotier