River Plate draws tremendous support in Argentina, even as the club has performed miserably over the past few campaigns. For a club with maximum ambitions and super passionate fans, the moments of joy have been few and far between. This week-end the club’s leadership changed, will its fortunes follow?
Today’s River is worse than last year’s River, which was worse than the previous year’s River. All of the blame for the “catastrophe” has been pinned on the club’s outgoing president, Aguilar, who has systematically sold players without replenishing the roster. Where did the money go? Every Argentine says “it’s in Aguilar’s foreign bank account.” And so over the past few months, River’s presidential elections took center stage at every home match, on the billboards and the buses of Buenos Aires, on murals throughout the city. Appealing to the club’s 30,600 voting socios, or members, each of the five candidates professed eternal love for the club and the best plan to turn it around.
The election was initially ‘won’ by Rodolfo D’Onofrio, a candidate supported by the Principe himself, Enzo Francescoli, by a margin of only two votes. But after a recount was held well into the night, a new result emerged: Daniel Passarella, former player and manager, is now the new president of River Plate, having won 5,298 votes to D’Onofrio’s 5,292. D’Onofrio lodged an appeal while scrambling to find more votes and it is still possible that the result may change, but for now Passarella is in charge and he has already begun to act on transitional matters.
Regardless who is declared winner, River Plate will not return to glory unless it makes serious roster changes. It is imperative for the duo of Gallardo and Ortega to step aside, ceremoniously but without delay. Their fidelity to the club is unquestionable, but their performances have been far below requirements for a long time. No rival is intimidated by a River team led by Ortega and Gallardo. Yet the two are heavy personalities in the River clubhouse and as long as they dominate the club’s culture and image, nothing will change. For some reason, River fans have accepted their infallibility on the basis of past glory. Asked about Ortega’s greatest contribution to the club, one passionate River fan cited Ortega’s great form in the 1996 Copa Libertadores run. That was 13 years ago!
Ortega’s limitations were clearly on display for all to see in a recent match against Estudiantes. He was utterly useless the entire match, losing ball after ball, barely running, his touch non-existent. Yet late in injury time he poked in the equalizer after a great individual effort by Diego Buonanotte and the entire River hinchada chanted his name as if he was the saviour. Ortega and Gallardo love the club, but love their image even more. They must make way for quality play makers, as mere flashes of quality cannot sustain River.
Beyond Gallardo and Ortega, River does not have much depth. Almeyda, who returned home from Europe to retire with his beloved club, adds a tough dimension in the middle of the field, but he is also 35. Buonanotte is a speedy winger, Pereyra a young work in progress. The defensive unit desperately needs an upgrade. Passarella promised to lure aging stars back to the club, like Crespo, Aimar and Saviola. But that is a dangerous strategy. As long as they can play, former River players will opt for Euros or Petrodollars. By the time they return to Buenos Aires they might be at Ortega caliber and no longer able to carry River to higher heights. We’ll see how the Passarella era shapes up by the 2010 Apertura.