Argentina is really going ahead with its 30-team league

Daniel Osvaldo was mobbed upon arrival to the airport in Buenos Aires. It was to be expected. Osvaldo is, after all, a first-rate player with film star looks arriving to sign for one of the country’s biggest clubs. ’It is the greatest dream of my life,’ he said, landing back in his native Argentina to join Boca Juniors. It will be a short-lived dream for the striker, as the Italy international is only joining on a six-month loan, but it is a childhood dream for the Boca fan nonetheless.

At the Bombonera, the striker ticks all the right boxes. He brings quality and European football experience. Sure, he comes with baggage in the form of verbal or physical aggression directed at his own teammates, hinting at why Boca is his 11th club in ten years. But Osvaldo also brings the oh-so-important added value of joining as a player-supporter. As was quick to point out, when he scored goals against Boca for Espanyol in a 2011 friendly, not only did he not celebrate, he even apologized.

The new striker is so much one of the Xeneize family that for his arrival, he chose to wear a t-shirt emblazoned with an outstretched hand. The five digits of that hand were a transparent reference to each of the goals Boca scored against rivals River Plate in a recent summer friendly. There had been no points at stake in that game, nor could they advance along in a cup competition, but few shied away from calling it a ‘historic result.’ In dutiful accordance with the old adage, there is no such thing as a friendly when it comes to superclásicos.

River Plate brushed off the jokes and lame puns and, on the eve of the new season, swiftly won their second international trophy in just over two months. The first, the Sudamericana, was lifted having beaten Boca in the semifinal. The second, the Supercup, was after beating San Lorenzo, who had lifted the number one Cup trophy in the region, the Libertadores Cup, last August.

The Supercup pitting two Argentine sides together exemplified the dominance of the domestic league in 2014. Now the country’s two biggest clubs, River and Boca, seem to be both enjoying something of a swagger and are taking regular swipes at the other, which is exactly as it should be. The other clubs that make up the the Big Five (Independiente, Racing, San Lorenzo) are also in good shape. Factor in that the clubs continue to splash out on signings, with Osvaldo the headlines transfer of the close season, and and you’d perhaps think the Argentine league is enjoying high times.

The reality, however, is that nobody can really put their finger on quite what is going on.

What we do know is the season that kicks off this weekend in Argentina is an experiment. By the close of competitive league soccer last year, 10 teams had won promotion to the top flight. In one fell swoop, the first division expanded to a 30-team format.

‘It is not an attractive tournament,’ admitted Matias Lammens, the San Lorenzo president, just days before the season began. Julio Grondona, head of the Argentine soccer association for over 35 years, had convinced the clubs it would benefit everyone. But Grondona passed away just after the World Cup, and now no one seems quite certain.

The more powerful clubs organised clandestine meetings late last year to bicker and complain about the format and, seeing as there was no way to adjust for this season, discuss how to get back to 20 teams as soon as possible. Three years of transition will be needed to return Argentine soccer to where it was just a matter of months ago.

At the end of 2015, two teams will be relegated. The format will change again in 2016, and the hope is that by 2017-18 the league will both be down-sized and will run alongside the European football calendar.

In the short term, we have this year’s league competition, the Julio Humberto Grondona Tournament. It is is less federal — the buzzword dropped when authorities explain any shakeup of the game in Argentina — than hoped. In fact, little has changed.

There are teams making their debuts in the top league, and some who are making comebacks after ten or twenty years. But the historic imbalance of teams from the capital and surrounding area, explained by socioeconomic history and train tracks, has not been altered. Teams from in and around Buenos Aires still dominate numerically, and will probably dominate the top of the table too.

One of the issues surrounding the new format was TV money. Argentine football is free-to-air, and the State is the rights holder. An increase in TV money has been agreed, after clubs rightly worried that more teams would mean a smaller share of the pot. The new figure quoted by local press is of $165m to share out amongst the clubs over the course of the year. The new Premier League deal pays that much for just 11 games. In Argentina this year, there will be 15 games per weekend.

Quite how free-to-air TV will cope with 15 games to televise every weekend is another matter altogether.

The method of financing Argentine football is not always a crowd pleaser. Legendary former midfielder Juan Sebastian Veron has moved up to the boardroom at his club, Estudiantes de La Plata. The recently-elected club president said the public money spent on football should go on schools and hospitals instead.

But Veron is one of those presidents having to work out how to make the various ends meet, if that is at all possible. His club commanded one of the highest amounts paid for a player this close season, when Sampdoria signed Joaquin Correa for U$10m. But that type of income is now a rarity. The days when clubs would sell a player to a wealthy Italian or Spanish club for in excess of $20m are long gone.

There might not be a lot of money floating around, but last season saw the quality of football on show improve. Perhaps it was to do with the younger generation of coaches coming through. It is unlikely it was to do with the blanket ban on away supporters, which thankfully is slowly starting to be removed. But whatever the reason, as Argentina faces the logistical conundrum of a 30-team league, the hope is that it doesn’t backfire quite as spectacularly as many fear.