By Amos Murphy
How to find fun during hours and hours of lockdown misery is a question we have all spent the last ten months or so asking ourselves.
For me, it was Football Manager: simulating my way through a parallel universe of footballing scenarios, playing from daylight to night-time (and admittedly back to light) helped cure my self-isolation boredom. Despite the highs and lows whilst managing Europe’s top sides, the repetitive nature of competing for the same titles and playing against the same teams started to become a bit boring, with one league in South America providing a much-needed injection of excitement.
Steeped in heritage, filled with historic teams and bursting with wonderkids, the Argentine Primera División offered a welcome escape from the mundanity of managing in the European leagues. But whilst casual players of Football Manager might be accustomed to raiding the best young talents from Argentina’s Superliga, few will be aware of its bizarre structure and even freakier relegation system.
Prior to the start of the 2018/19 season, Club Atlético Tigre had spent over a decade in the Primera División – by the time the campaign ended El Matador had come ninth, won the cup, qualified for Copa Sudamericana group stage (South America’s Europa League equivalent), and… been relegated. A top-half finish and continental qualification weren’t enough to prevent the club from relegation, a product of the promedios system – the Primera División’s three-season average for working out who goes down and who stays up.
Unlike in most league systems where a selection of teams with the lowest points total are relegated, on-brand with Argentina’s label as a footballing maverick, the four teams that face relegation from the Superliga are those with the lowest points average across the previous three seasons – the two with the fewest automatically relegated and the other pair entering a play-off system.
In practice it seems quite simple: the number of points gained is divided by the amount of matches played, meaning most sides’ averages will be calculated based off the total fixtures across three seasons – the only exception being for newly promoted sides, whose promedios is worked out from the amount of games played whilst in the division. Its simplicity is lost when trying to understand relegation permutations in the run-up to matches, with those lacking a degree in mathematics often shrugging their shoulders and waiting to see the state of the table after full-time.
Further headaches are caused when calculating the points average of teams that yo-yo between the first and second tiers: if a side is relegated to the Primera B (division two) but earns promotion back to the Primera División immediately, the points tally from their relegation season does not carry over and they start with a clean slate. However, if a team is relegated after just one season in the Primera División, the points from their promotion campaign in Primera B two seasons prior would remain the same, meaning that team would start their campaign back in the second division with whatever average they went up with. Straightforward? No. Nonsensical? Maybe. Invigorating? Most definitely.
Unique in every way, the format’s origins are rooted in controversy, with critics arguing that it was introduced to protect Argentina’s biggest clubs from relegation. But the doubters were silenced in 2011 after record championship winners, River Plate succumbed to the promedios. In a relegation that was never meant to happen, River failed to recover from two of the worst seasons in the club’s history and their form in the 2010/11 campaign saw them drop to the second tier of Argentinian football for the first time in their long and illustrious history. When their fate was sealed, a riot ensued: police clashed with fans, the players were kept in the dressing room for three hours and River’s prestigious stadium – the Monumental – home of Argentina’s 1978 World Cup triumph on home turf, was set alight by enraged supporters.
Such was the dismay in the ranks of the River Plate fanbase, radio commentator Atilio Costa Febre blared live on air that the Belgrano players – the side River lost to in the relegation play-off – were “thieving pigs” and that “the little dictators had thrown s**t on us all”. So, the team that had once housed idols of the game from Juan José López, Mario Kempes and Hernán Crespo, to Ariel Ortega, Javier Mascherano and even the ethereal Alfredo Di Stéfano, found themselves in the Primera B, as a result of the very system invented to protect them.
Eternal enemies Boca Juniors, now the only team in Argentina who had never suffered the embarrassment of relegation, couldn’t get enough of their city rival’s demise – songs, costumes and tifos could be heard and seen at Boca matches following River’s relegation, all bearing reference to the Spanish word for chickens “gallinas”. A long-time insult used by Boca fans, referring to the lack of courage River Plate display. The demise of the gallinas was superior to any victory, player or trophy win Boca had ever experienced, for in Argentina, the one thing greater than winning is cargadas – insult culture.
To be able to go into work or school on the Monday and take the mick out of friends because their team lost at the weekend is deemed sweeter than anything else for an Argentine football supporter – River’s relegation was the ultimate cargar. Boca laughed until they cried.
River Plate’s suffering was short-lived. Los Millonarios returned to the Primera División immediately and under the tutelage of former player Marcelo Gallardo went on a silverware winning rampage: nine trophies in five years culminated with the biggest of them all in 2018, a Copa Libertadores triumph against Superclásico rivals Boca Juniors. The struggles of River were an anomaly on what has traditionally been a fool-proof system for protecting Argentina’s big clubs. For an established side to get relegated, they have to perform below par consistently, with one bad season usually meaning they have a bank of points from previous campaigns to fall back on.
It begs the question, if an averaging system were to be introduced to English football what would its landscape look like today? Former super-powers Nottingham Forest, Leeds United and Aston Villa have all dropped into the abyss based off a relatively short-term collapse. What would it have done for the fortunes of perennial relegation survivors like West Brom and Sunderland, who both sustained periods of dodging the drop in the final weeks of the season, only to repeat their great escape antics a year later.
As exciting as it is to speculate the ifs and buts, it serves no other purpose than reimagining election results if First Past the Post had been replaced by a different electoral system – the truth is whichever apparatus used to determine a result, in the end, it will finish up looking however those who control the power want it to look, which is exactly what the promedios was intended to do. With a full restructure of the Argentine football pyramid promised by the authorities, the infamous averaging system looks to have passed its sell-by date.
Argentine football was no exception to the organisational chaos caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and whilst European governing bodies scrambled to come up with solutions to finish their partly completed seasons, Argentina’s Football Association cancelled all footballing activity in late April, deciding that no side would face relegation for at least two years.
In a move to present a glossier product to the European broadcasting markets, scrapping the averaging system, which has supplied unfiltered drama not seen on a platform as big as the Primera División, would symbolise a shift in Argentina’s footballing outlook. And with the passing of the nation’s poster-boy and stoic idol, Diego Armando Maradona, signalling the end of an era of scandals and controversy for Argentine football, maybe now is the time to modernise one of football’s perpetual motherlands.
But as I sat curled up in my bed in the early hours of one of lockdown’s never-ending nights, can of Carlsberg in one hand and Football Manager running on my laptop, the exotic yet trivial nature of checking the average points tally for the team I was managing provided a different layer of reality never experienced for a European football fan. If the promedios is to go, it will leave behind a legacy befitting of the country’s footballing past – as poetically explained by Diego “I am black and white, I will never be grey”, a concept that can well and truly be applied to the promedios and Argentinian football.