Defensa y Justicia: From lower league obscurity to continental glory?

By Martín O’Donnell

It’s an exciting time for Club Social y Deportivo Defensa y Justicia just days before the Copa Sudamericana semi-finals. For the first time in the club’s history, the Halcón will be challenging for a place in an international final. An incredible journey and one that is fully deserved after years of making the right decisions and improving with every season.

The great campaign in the Nacional B in 2013-14 was the starting point, Defensa clinched a spot in Argentina’s top flight for the first time. Although they struggled at the beginning, they continued to progress without being drawn into the relegation positions. Only in their first season did they finish anywhere near the bottom, but as the Argentinian Football Association (AFA) wanted to increase the number of teams for the next season, there were no relegations from this Torneo de Transicion 2014. So despite finishing in 18th, the Halcón survived their introduction to the top flight. 

Things didn’t change overnight, but Defensa didn’t have to worry even once about relegation after that opening season. Instead, international games became a habit at the Estadio Norberto Tomaghello. In 2015 they finished 21st out of 30, and the following year 4th in a group of 15, which booked Florencio Varela’s side an unprecedented Copa Sudamericana spot.

Since then, the Halcón have never finished below tenth and haven’t missed a CONMEBOL competition either, a level of consistency that even the bigger Argentinian clubs struggle to do. The highest point was when they fought for the title with Racing in the 2018-19 season. Ultimately finishing as runners-up, Defensa recorded its highest ever finish in the first division and achieved their biggest feat: a place in the Copa Libertadores. Hernán Crespo’s men couldn’t get through to the round of 16, but they were sent to the Sudamericana due to their third place in group G. Their place in the semi-final evidence of the Halcón seizing the opportunity.

There has been some remarkable work over these years that have led to this present. Defensa y Justicia’s recruitment has followed a clear, successful pattern: young players with potential to grow, and those players who haven’t necessarily shone at the Cinco Grandes or other important Argentinian clubs.

The emergence of youth talent is one of the most notable features. Taking footballers on loan and helping them to develop Defensa y Justicia have successfully aided the careers of many, such as Guido Rodríguez (currently at Real Betis), Lisandro Martínez (who arrived on loan from Newell’s, was then purchased before being sold to Ajax), Domingo Blanco, Agustín Rossi, Agustín Bouzat or Alexander Barboza (although he didn’t do well back at River nor Independiente) but they’ve also given vital minutes to youngsters that later caught the eye of the most popular teams of Argentina: Nicolás Uvita Fernandez (San Lorenzo) is one of those.

Additionaly Florencio Varela become a place where players who struggled at important clubs could get back to their highest level. Braian Romero, who couldn’t shine at el Rojo, now thrives under Crespo, while previously the likes of Rubén Botta and Gonzalo Castellani impressed. 

That focus on young, promising footballers, alongside more experienced ones, was perfectly aligned with a clear profile for first team managers – Young, offensive-minded coaches often without being too well-known in the world of football, or with relative inexperience in the role. This not only was key to the results on the pitch but also for a well-recognized style based on possession, attacking and high-pressing that gave Defensa a particular status in an Argentinian competition where there are few teams capable of displaying that type of game. 

Diego Cocca was the one who led the team to the promotion in 2014, in a season where Defensa was highly praised for his possession based style of football, in a division where that kind of playing is not common. After Cocca’s exit to coach Racing, where he won the championship, the club appointed Darío Franco, who had experience as a manager in Argentina’s second tier, where he almost promoted an Instituto de Córdoba with Paulo Dybala making his first steps. Franco also had an attacking mindset, but couldn’t produce the required results.

José Oscar Turu Flores, a Vélez legend, didn’t do much better and spent only five matches at Florencio Varela. But then Defensa made a big call, and named a low profile person for the role. Former field hockey coach Ariel Holan, who had begun working with Jorge Burruchaga, an Argentina and Independiente icon, and then served as an assistant to Matías Almeyda, was given the opportunity to become a professional first team football coach. And with this appointment el Halcon started to impress in the top flight. 

Apart from the offensive style that Defensa looked for, Holan added new methods for preparing his team such as the use of innovative technology, drones and GPS, that gave his staff precise data about the players’ performance both in training and during games. Holan secured Defensa y Justicia’s first qualification to the Copa Sudamericana before leaving to join Independiente, where he would lift that same trophy in 2017.

To replace him, the Halcón went once again for a man who wasn’t particularly well-known in Argentinian football. Sebastián Becaccece, who had been Jorge Sampaoli’s assistant for a number of years, signed after a tough first experience with Universidad de Chile, but he continued the good work that Holan had started. In the Sudamericana first round, the club’s first taste of continental competition, they historically beat São Paulo at the Morumbi. Defeat to Chapecoense in the next round and Becaccece leaving to rejoin Sampaoli in Argentina’s national team during the FIFA World-Cup Qualifiers threatened to derail things.

Nelson Vivas, another young coach, linked with Diego Simeone, didn’t help the matter lasting only seven matches but his replacement Juan Pablo Vojvoda, another young coach given his first real opportunity, recovered the identity and the results that had been momentarily lacking.

Vojvoda left for Talleres and Becaccece returned. The Argentina job may have ended in disaster but his second stint with Defensa was even better than the previous one. In this period, the club reached its highest position in a first division competition, they were serious challengers for the championship, fighting for the title with Racing Club. A lot of talent emerged and with their attractive style of play this historic second placed finish also provided a ticket for the Copa Libertadores.

Success attracted suitors and Independiente hired Becca on the back of this incredible run. Defensa in turn went after Mariano Soso, who had a similar profile to previous managers. However, the 39-year-old didn’t stay for a long time, and while the current manager in Florencio Varela has the qualities that the club always looks for, he is certainly not an unknown: Hernán Crespo, the former Argentina striker and one-time most expensive player.

After a promising but ultimately disappointing spell in charge of Banfield, Defensa y Justicia seemed well suited to another young coach looking to make his way regardless of his profile. Now one year on, Crespo has the Halcón in a first continental semi-final and in pursuit of the Copa Sudamericana.

Throughout all these years, things appeared quite clear for the Halcon de Varela when deciding who the coach should be and what players should be brought. That is paying off and their hopes are higher than ever. Defensa’s fantastic progress in Argentinian football is being reflected in South America with their incredible run in the Copa Sudamericana, which could be their first major title ever, or at least, an unforgettable campaign from a team that follows a convincing path.

Martin O’Donnell – 20 years old. Sports writer from Buenos Aires, Argentina. Student of Communications