What will Argentine football look like after a seven-month hiatus?

Argentine football is back after a SEVEN-MONTH hiatus: There’s a new tournament with NO promotion or relegation to replace the league, a host of Premier League old boys… but still none of the famously-passionate fans are allowed in

  • Domestic action returns to Argentina on Friday, Diego Maradona’s birthday
  • It has been seven months since Boca Juniors dramatically sealed the Superliga  
  • Since then every other South American league, apart from Bolivia, has returned
  • However, it will be a cup competition with no relegation and two group stages
  • Sportsmail answers the key questions ahead of the restart this weekend

Seven months after Carlos Tevez kick-started Boca Juniors’ Superliga title win with a kiss for good luck from Diego Maradona, domestic football is back in Argentina. 

River Plate led the Superliga by a point before the final weekend and needed a win at unfancied Atletico Tucuman to secure the title, but they hadn’t counted on Boca receiving divine intervention from the man responsible for the Hand of God. 

Tevez greeted Maradona with a kiss on the lips on his return to the Bombonera as manager of relegation strugglers Gimnasia y Esgrima La Plata, before arrowing a shot through the Gimnasia keeper’s grasp to send the hosts into delirium. 

Carlos Tevez greeted Diego Maradona with a kiss before the final day of last season

Tevez went on to score the winner which sealed Boca Juniors’ 34th league title

River’s 1-1 draw in Tucuman handed Boca their 34th title and prompted wild celebrations after snatching the crown from their eternal rivals.

‘I knew I had to kiss Diego, I was lucky that way,’ said the 36-year old Tevez. ‘Sometimes you have to look for luck.’

The Argentine FA will be hoping for similar luck when the new-look Copa de la Liga Profesional kicks off following a seven-month break enforced by the pandemic on Friday – which also happens to be Maradona’s 60th birthday.   

Could the stars align again for Boca? Will the debate over who is the sixth biggest club be settled? And how many Blackburn flops are there in the Argentine top-flight?

Here Sportsmail takes you through everything you need to know about the new campaign.

But the Bombonera – along with all other stadiums in Argentina – has gone silent since then

The simple answer is that the government did not want to allow football to return while the pandemic was out of control. 

Argentina will be one of the last leagues in South America to restart along with Bolivia

Argentina is one of the last South American countries to resume top-flight football along with Bolivia, with most leagues having restarted months ago.       

Meanwhile the Copa Libertadores, the continental equivalent of the Champions League, returned on 15 September with five Argentine representatives – Boca Juniors, River Plate, Racing Club, Defensa y Justicia and Tigre – in the group stage. 

The news of the Libertadores restart forced the government’s hand and clubs were allowed to resume small-sided training from mid-August while friendlies took place late last month.  

Initially a date of September 25 was set for the start of the new competition, but that was pushed back as cases went up.

Finally, Argentine FA president Claudio Tapia announced the start date of 30 October for the new competition. 

Argentina became the fifth country in the world to record one million coronavirus cases last week and over 29,700 people have died after contracting the virus despite a stringent lockdown.

Add to that a major outbreak at Boca which saw 18 players affected ahead of their Libertadores matches last month, and it is easy to see why it has taken so long to get Argentine football back on track.

In short, there is no sign the pandemic is slowing down in South America, and there is no guarantee the competition would be allowed to reach its conclusion if the situation got worse in Argentina. 

Will there be fans in stadiums?

Fans are the Argentine top flight’s biggest selling point but they will be absent for the restart

Not at first, for obvious reasons. This is a huge blow to Argentine football given that passionate fans are perhaps its biggest selling point. 

They can also be its biggest problem, however, and in 2013 the AFA banned all away fans from stadiums after the death of a Lanus supporter at a match in La Plata against Estudiantes.

Then there were the nasty scenes between supporters and police which forced the postponement of the Copa Libertadores final between Boca Juniors and River Plate and eventually forced the authorities to move the second leg to Madrid.

Regardless, colourful chants and displays by fans provide much of the spectacle of Argentine football. They will be sorely missed in the stands when the tournament kicks off.

It will be a while until we see this kind of colourful display from fans in stadiums again

What will the competition look like?

Bear with us on this one. Earlier this month the AFA announced top-flight football would return on 30 October in the form of a one-off tournament, the Copa de la Liga Profesional, which will run from October to January.

Argentine FA president Claudio Tapia announced that football would return on 30 October

Copa de la Liga Profesional

Group 1 Arsenal, Atletico Tucuman, Racing Club, Union

Group 2 Central Cordoba, Colon, Defensa y Justicia, Independiente

Group 3 Banfield, Godoy Cruz, River Plate, Rosario Central

Group 4 Boca Juniors, Lanus, Newell’s Old Boys, Talleres 

Group 5 Aldosivi, Argentinos Juniors, Estudiantes, San Lorenzo 

Group 6 Gimnasia, Huracan, Patronato, Velez

The top two teams from each group go through to the ‘Fase Campeonato’ to decide the trophy

The bottom two teams go through to the ‘Fase Complementaria’  to decide a second-string competition

The AFA’s idea is for this tournament to be a stop-gap before the next full season in 2021 after the long hiatus, with a new title and Libertadores and Sudamericana places up for grabs but no teams facing relegation.

Nor will the tournament count towards Argentina’s unique system of ‘promedios’, or averages, in which teams are relegated based on their performance over the last three seasons.

The 24 top-flight teams have been divided into six ‘zonas’, or groups, based around the six big teams decided by the AFA – although this has not been without controversy in the case of who counts as the sixth ‘grande’.

Every team will play each other home and away, following which the top two from each group will go through to another phase – called the ‘Fase Campeonato’ – with two groups of six in which teams will play only once.

Still with us? At the end of this second group stage, the winners of each group will face each other in the final on neutral soil to decide who lifts the Copa. The winners will guarantee a place in next year’s Libertadores.

Given the AFA want to keep all teams involved for as long as possible, those who finish third and fourth in the first group stage will go through to another phase – the slightly underwhelmingly named ‘Fase Complementaria’ in exactly the same format.

The winners of the Fase Complementaria will face the losing finalists of the Fase Campeonato. The prize? A place in the Sudamericana… in 2022. I need a lie-down.

So who are the big six?

Best not to discuss this with Huracan fans. The AFA decided that the six ‘seeds’ would be Boca Juniors, River Plate, Independiente, Racing Club, San Lorenzo and Velez Sarsfield.

Five of those are fairly uncontroversial, but it is Velez’s inclusion which has opened an eternal debate which fans of other clubs had hoped to see the end of.

Huracan and Velez have long disputed who the sixth ‘grande’ is, and the AFA poured fuel on the fire when they ruled Velez would be the sixth seed thanks to their 10 league titles – the last of those won in 2012-13. 

Huracan’s last of five came in 1973, although supporters of El Globo still maintain they were robbed in an infamous 2009 clash with Velez to decide the Clausura title.  

‘I wouldn’t understand if it wasn’t Huracan,’ moaned Huracan president Alejandro Nadur before the official decision was announced. ‘Are Huracan bigger than Velez? History speaks for itself.’

That may be, but his side will have to back that up when they face Velez in Group F on Saturday – surely the game of the first round.

Who will win it?

It’s anyone’s guess given the only sides we’ve been able to assess properly over the last seven months have been those involved in the Libertadores.

Boca, River and Racing all made it through to the round of 16 in the Libertadores and so will doubtless prioritise that competition, while the same will be true of those who advance to the latter stages of the Sudamericana which restarted on Tuesday.

Racing have made it to the last 16 of the Libertadores and will likely prioritise that tournament

That could leave the door open for an unfancied club to win the one-off tournament, although it has already been decided that it will count as a cup rather than a league title.

Boca are the reigning Superliga champions but they face a group of death which involves Marcelo Bielsa’s former side Newell’s Old Boys, Lanus and Talleres of Cordoba. 

The clashes between Boca and Newell’s will see Carlos Tevez and Maxi Rodriguez go head to head, but keep an eye out for Ignacio Scocco – the one-time Sunderland striker who was prolific for River and will surely want to put their eternal rivals to the sword now he’s back in Rosario.

Any young players worth keeping an eye on?

Lots. The format of this tournament and the ongoing Libertadores and Sudamericana campaigns mean that the big sides will likely give their youngsters plenty of opportunities to shine. 

Julian Alvarez is River Plate’s brightest prospect with four goals in three Libertadores matches

Julian Alvarez is already starting for River Plate and is arguably the most exciting talent in Argentina. The 20-year-old forward finds himself in a purple patch and has notched four goals in three matches since the Libertadores restarted in September.

Alvarez came on for the first half of extra-time in the 2018 Libertadores final to end all finals against Boca Juniors and continues to repay his manager Marcelo Gallardo’s faith in him.

Racing midfielder Benjamin Garre’s performances will be of interest to Manchester City fans. He started in the Velez Sarsfield youth system before joining City at 16, where he learnt under Pep Guardiola.

Garre was unable to break into City’s first team despite making over 60 appearances for the youth sides, but he revealed that Guardiola called him when he made his £2m move back to Argentina to join Racing.  

‘Guardiola called me when I arrived at Racing to wish me the best,’ he said. ‘I’ve learnt a lot from Pep, he’s a top-class coach. I’m very grateful for everything he gave me.’

Thiago Almada was born in the same neighbourhood as Carlos Tevez and could be on the move

Thiago Almada will be a name familiar to Leeds fans after the Argentine press linked the striker with a move to Marcelo Bielsa’s side this summer.

The 19-year old became the first player born this century to appear for Velez when he came on against Newell’s Old Boys in 2018 and has gone from strength to strength since then, making nearly 50 appearances and scoring nine goals.

Born and raised in the same neighbourhood as Tevez, he was reportedly close to joining City in the summer of 2019 and may yet seek to emulate his idol by moving to the Etihad.  

Any former Premier League stars?

It depends how you class ‘stars’ in some cases, but yes. 

Now in his third stint at Boca, Carlos Tevez is not the striker he once was at Manchester City and Manchester United but he has guaranteed his legendary status at the Bombonera with that goal to clinch the 34th league title. 

His former West Ham teammate Javier Mascherano signed for Estudiantes La Plata last year after 15 years away from Argentina in which he won everything there was to win during an eight-year spell at Barcelona. 

‘I want to feel football like I felt it a long time ago,’ he said at his unveiling. ‘I want to breathe the adrenaline of Argentine football again.’ 

Maxi Rodriguez (left) returned to become an icon at his boyhood club Newell’s Old Boys

Maxi Rodriguez has become an icon in his own right at Newell’s Old Boys since returning from Liverpool eight years ago. Like Tevez, he is in his third spell at the Rosario giants having come through the ranks there. 

Another Newell’s returnee, Blackburn fans would rather forget Mauro Formica’s time at the club. In fairness to the striker, manager Steve Kean probably didn’t help by comparing him to the great Gabriel Batistuta.

‘He is a fantastic talent, an attacking player – a little bit like a young Batistuta,’ Kean said after Blackburn signed him on transfer deadline day. Formica lasted 18 months at Ewood Park as Blackburn were relegated from the Premier League.

San Lorenzo have also signed a striker who endured a miserable time at Blackburn – Franco Di Santo. The £3.4m forward, who failed to score for Chelsea before varying spells at Wigan, Werder Bremen and Schalke 04, will make his first senior appearance in Argentine football when he returns from injury having left Godoy Cruz as a youngster for Chilean side Audax Italiano.

Former Newcastle talisman Fabricio Coloccini has anchored San Lorenzo since his return in 2016 to the team where he won the Clausura in 2001 but faces a spell on the sidelines.

Meanwhile his old Toon teammate Jonas Gutierrez has just signed a new contract at Banfield after overcoming two horror injuries to both of his knees over the past three years.

How much of Diego Maradona can we expect to see?

This is Argentina, so do you really need to ask? Maradona’s return to the touchline last year as manager of Gimnasia seemed to bring Argentina to a standstill and led to a range of tributes for the 1986 World Cup winner.

Newell’s presented El Diego, who played a handful of games for the Rosario club, with a framed painting, a signed shirt, and his very own throne when Gimnasia came to visit.

Newell’s Old Boys presented Maradona with a throne when Gimnasia visited last season

That sparked a trend which Huracan and Independiente both copied despite having no obvious connection to Maradona apart from his World Cup-winning exploits for Argentina.  

Factor in Argentinos Juniors’ inflatable tunnel in Maradona’s image – at one point mooted as the stage for El Diego’s birthday celebrations on Friday – and it seems as if Maradona mania is here to stay.  

Reports in Argentina say Maradona is self-isolating after one of his bodyguards displayed symptoms of the virus, and it remains to be seen whether he will be present on the touchline for Gimnasia’s opener against Patronato on Friday. 

Either way, it is yet more proof that this season could be the strangest yet.

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