After losing the first-leg 2-0 in Córdoba, River’s hopes of staying in the top division were boosted when Mariano Pavone scored after just five minutes of the return, and their cause was further helped when Belgrano were reduced to ten men before half-time. However, Belgrano equalized early in the second-half and Pavone missed a penalty consigning la banda roja to their fate.
As the players left the field in tears, fans rioted on the terraces, having to be quelled by fire hoses, before trashing club facilities in protest at the club’s alleged mismanagement. There were also pitched battles in the streets surrounding the Estadio Monumental as fans fought with police, who reported 89 injuries and 50 arrests.
Club president, Daniel Passarella, remained defiant in the face of the protests, saying to the waiting press shortly before he was sped away from the stadium in a waiting car: “They will have to carry me out feet first!”
Odds stacked against
The Nuñez giants knew the odds were stacked against them before the Clausura season started as the convoluted system of three year points averages (ironically designed to keep the big clubs in the top flight) left them perilously close to the bottom of the promedio.
Despite that being the case, hopes were high of avoiding that nightmare scenario as the club had already secured the big-name loan signings of Juan Pablo Carrizo and Pavone before the Apertura campaign and loaned back Diego Buonanotte for a further six months following his move to Málaga.
Meanwhile, Juan José López who steadied the ship as caretaker coach at the close of the Apertura campaign appeared to be leading the club to safety as River briefly led the table a few rounds into the Clausura, pinning his faith in youngsters like Rogelio Funes Mori and Erik Lamela. However, a run of draws saw them fall away and a nightmare defeat to arch-rivals Boca Juniors in which captain, Matías Almeyda was sent off, heralded a winless run which sent them helter-skelter towards the relegation trap door.
The damage done to River Plate by relegation will not only be to its prestige, but economic as well for a club already US$19 million in debt. By dropping into the B Nacional they will lose AR$24 million in television revenues, their sponsors Adidas, Petrobras and Tramontina all have clauses in their contracts that allow for a downward renegotiation in the event of relegation and the value of their players will also depreciate accordingly, whilst being able to pay top flight salaries to their biggest stars – if they can be persuaded to stay – will become untenable in this climate.
Not just that, but the big clásico matches against Boca Juniors, Independiente, Racing Club and San Lorenzo that filled the Monumental will also disappear from the calendar as their biggest derby match will now be against their somewhat less salubrious Nuñez neighbours, Defensores de Belgrano, a massive comedown when you consider that just 15 years ago River Plate were taking on Juventus for the title of World Club Champions.
If River Plate are to make a swift return to the big league, a lot will depend on how many of their talented crop of youngsters they can keep their hands on and whether they can be imbued with a winning mentality, or whether they will remain psychologically scarred from their horror season. The top flight will be poorer for their absence.