Some visitors to Argentina will have a passing knowledge of the local professional soccer league. A few might even consider themselves experts. Many, however, will know next to nothing about soccer as it is played in this part of the world, apart from the fact that the Argentineans are absolutely nuts about it.
Here we’ll take a look at the game in Argentina, how it’s played, how it’s followed, and a few interesting details that will help you understand a little more about the league itself. These are the basics you’ll need to know in order to actively participate in approximately one third of all conversations that occur in this country – the ones about futbol, as football or soccer is known in Spanish.
It is no exaggeration to state that this is one of only a handful of truly great soccer nations. Along with the likes of Italy, Germany and Brazil, the Argentine national team is possessed of a certain aura that makes it a perennial top dog; a side that everyone else considers very challenging to play against and one of the contenders when the World Cup rolls around every four years.
That’s because Argentina is a tremendous producer of talented soccer players. Two of the greatest of all time are both Argentine; Diego Maradona, who played in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s and Lionel Messi, who is still scampering about nowadays (and probably hasn’t even reached his peak yet). Those two may stand out, but at any time there are numerous players from this country considered among the very elite. Currently there’s Sergio Aguero, Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano, just to name a few.
So the local league must be among the best in the world, right? Well, not exactly. For financial reasons, the very best Argentine players don’t spend their entire careers in their homeland. The top, top talents are usually whisked away by the financially powerful clubs in Europe in their late teens and early twenties. They’ll spend the bulk of their careers playing somewhere like Spain, England or Italy before sometimes coming back to Argentina in the twilight of their careers for one final stint at their favorite club.
What that means is that Argentine soccer is a great place to see young, emerging talents and a few veteran superstars, but the overall quality is not on a par with Europe’s best leagues; not that this affects public interest in the local competition.
Most teams, at least, stick to a fairly similar blueprint; one that runs through from junior soccer right through to the national side. Argentine teams are all about precise, highly technical build-up play, coupled with brilliant individual attacking skills. While in many countries around the world they prefer to play a more direct style – with lots of sprinting and just two or three long passes before a shot on goal is attempted – Argentines traditionally attempt to annihilate their opponents softly, through fluid passing movements capped by moments of dazzling flair. Which is not to say some of the sport’s darker arts are cultivated as well. This style of passing soccer, while not always executed perfectly, is apparent when watching the majority of matches in Argentina.
Another plus for the local league, known as the ‘Primera’, is that it is uncertain and very competitive. Due to frequent player transfers and less stable financial situations, there is a constant ebb and flow in terms of which teams are dominant. Unlike in England or Spain, where you can be sure that one of the same three or four teams will win the title every year, Argentina’s league is much harder to predict. In the last ten championships contested, there have been eight different overall winners.
How is the champion decided? Well, presently (July 2014) there are actually two chances for clubs to win the title every year. In most leagues around the world, each team plays each other twice, home and away. Three points are given for a win, one point for a draw and at the end of the season the team with the most points wins the league. In Argentina and a few other South American countries, the difference is that all the teams play each other once, and a champion is declared, then after a few weeks break they play each other again, and another champion is declared. The reasons for this are fairly complicated, but in short, the powers that be seem to believe that if there are more title winners, the fans (who apparently have short attention spans) are kept more engaged. The first part of the season is called the Inicial, and the second part is called the Final.
Editor’s note: In 2015 the AFA will begin having a full length year tournament and one champion per year.
So any Primera game you go along to is, at one level at least, of equal importance to any other Primera game. There are no playoffs, or grand finals. Every match is worth a potential three points in the title race.
Obviously, when two of the better sides play each other, the match holds more significance for the championship. Similarly, when two traditional rivals go head to head, the atmosphere will be quite a bit more electric than a run-of-the-mill league game – and Argentine soccer is all about the rivalries. Clubs not only define themselves by who they are, but by who they are not. Everybody knows about Boca Juniors and River Plate, but there are dozens of other head-to-heads which hold a deeply ingrained animosity for fans. A few examples are Racing-Independiente, Newell’s-Central and Lanus-Banfield. These matches are known as ‘clasicos’ and are always colorful, spectacular affairs. Whenever any of the “big five” teams (the traditional powerhouses from Buenos Aires; River, Boca, Racing, Independiente and San Lorenzo) play each other, it is a ‘clasico’ game and a special ambiance is guaranteed in the stadium.
The intensity and passion that supporters demonstrate for their clubs will sometimes, notoriously, spill over into hooliganism – though usually this sort of thing has little to do with the real fans. It sometimes occurs in the stadium, though most of the more serious incidents in recent years have taken place in neighborhoods where a team’s barra brava (hooligan gang) is based, not necessarily even on the day of a game. It is usually related to money and power, and much of it is internal squabbling within the same gang. Within each stadium, supporters of the visiting team are kept completely separated from everyone else. Hairy situations are 99% restricted to clashes between those away fans and police, or the rowdier home fans – who sit in the popular section – and police. Normally, even in those sections, nothing goes on, and if you decide to go there with a tour guide who knows the ropes you’ll be fine – but if you are at all worried, stick to the platea sectors of the stadium. The platea tickets are a little more expensive, but are also more comfortable and offer a better sight of the pitch. You’ll also get a good view of the color and carry-on happening in the popular, without being in the middle of it.
It is possible to make your own way to most Primera matches, though going with a tour group will take most of the guess work out of it, and allow you to enjoy the experience without having to worry about things like logistics and safety. There are some clubs that have some hefty restrictions on ticket sales and admittance; Boca Juniors presently have a members only policy (entry allowed only with a Boca Juniors ID card) and River Plate have been mostly selling tickets to members only off and on in 2014. We offer group soccer tours, which includes courtesy buses to and from easy to find meeting points, bilingual guides which include Boca Juniors and River Plate matches.
In short, there are a myriad of options available to visitors who are keen to check out one of the world’s most fascinating soccer leagues. Whichever way you choose to do it, you’re likely to experience a very special sports spectacle, regardless of how much or little you happen to know about Argentine soccer beforehand.