Deceptive Cons: Tigre & the Beat of the Argentine League

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Everybody loves a roller coaster. The sudden highs and lows offer excitement from the banality of normal life. Soccer offers a similar promise. In Tigre, a modest town just 17 miles North of Buenos Aires, an amusement park known as “Parque de la Costa” hugs the riverfront. However, none of their rides can compare with the current season of Tigre’s soccer club, who before Sunday stared both a championship and relegation in the eye. Yes, read that again. Champion. Relegation. How is that possible, you ask?

A rigged system. Duh.

Some background: the Argentine league, like Mexico, plays two championships a year. Thus, you play 19 games over 6 months to become a champion. However, for relegation, in Argentina, you average your point total over the prior three years. It’s known as the promedio system. For each season in the top flight, you divide your points by games played. If you’ve been in the topflight for one year, then that’s 38 games. If you’ve been in the topflight for two years, then that’s 76 games. If you’ve been in the topflight for three years, then that’s 114 games. The bottom two teams are automatically relegated, while the next two play a playoff vs. the 3rd and 4th place teams from the second division.

Did you follow that BCS fans? Basically, the system makes it easier to win a championship than to get relegated. Of course, the relegation system is skewed heavily towards the bigger clubs with more resources and wealth to turn around their fortunes. Before, one bad year and they could descend. However, under the current system, most clubs can suffer poor results a few half-seasons but survive based on prior good years. That’s why it was such a shock that River Plate, a giant of Argentine football, got relegated last year. Incompetence lost out despite a stacked deck.

So, Tigre. Before Sunday, they could win at home vs. Independiente and if Arsenal (de Sarandi) lost, then Tigre would become Champions and avoid relegation. If Tigre and Arsenal tied and Boca Jrs. won, then Tigre would be in a playoff for the Championship and a playoff for the relegation/promotion spot. Don’t you just love playoffs? Don’t you American college football fans wish the BCS would adopt a playoff/point total hybrid? I’m skeptical that this is the best of both worlds? Rather, it looks more like a Frankenstein that serves neither the living or the dead. Why?

In a just world with relegation decided by a single season, Tigre would have gone down in 2009/10 when they got just 32 points over 38 games. However, the rigged system meant their mediocrity paled in comparison to other teams with a slightly longer history of profligacy. The great irony is that Tigre has since turned things around, but the promedio system weighs down their current success. Like an underwater mortgage or a student loan, they run faster on the treadmill but can only advance backwards. The system slows your descent, but can also perversely inhibit an ascent.

What are the risks? Why create a system that complicates relegation? As English fans of Portsmouth can attest, relegation offers a huge financial (and moral) blow to any club. River Plate could afford a former French international, David Terezeguet, whose goalscoring exploits led them back to the topflight within a year. Juventus wisely held onto key players to re-emerge from the Serie B in Italy. Smaller clubs, of course, cannot take a drop in revenue due to relegation and invest heavily in retaining or signing star players. What’s more likely is the “one stop up top”: promoted teams will spend a year in the topflight, but battle and lose against richer competition with a possible two years advantage in points promedio.

Of course, Tigre managed a draw yesterday, Boca lost to All Boys, and Arsenal won the title. Thus, the potential black eye to Argentine football was averted. Also, fans of the promedio system will point out that Buenos Aires traditional power San Lorenzo dropped into the promotion playoffs: thus, the system doesn’t always just favor the big guys. However, the league indisputably resembles a reverse roller coaster: clubs can climb the mountain and earn promotion quickly, yet the drop is frustratingly slow.

Until lower clubs unite and force through changes, Argentina’s maze of a relegation system will feed them to the minotaurs while shielding bigger clubs like Boca Jrs. In the meantime, modest clubs can only shout louder and louder even if they’re stuck running in place or worse, slowly backwards.

VIDEO: “Deceptacon” by Le Tigre

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