Arsenal’s staring into the face of relegation
For the Herald
Meanwhile Boca are not only staying up but top the heap in open race
In the history of professional Argentine soccer just two teams have the distinction of never suffering relegation from the Primera División. By the end of the current season, however, Boca Juniors may be left as the sole survivors, as Arsenal de Sarandí fight desperately against the drop. And it would be the most agonising of ironies if the man who takes them down bears the surname Grondona.
The Grondona in question is Humberto, son of Arsenal founder and late Argentine Football Association caudillo Don Julio. The former Argentina Under-20 coach came back to El Viaducto for his second spell at the family club, charged with a fiendishly difficult rescue operation. But results are not improving, with a 1-0 defeat to Newell’s at the weekend pulling the club down into the drop zone. With just eight points accrued in the entire season to date Arsenal has nosedived and is in serious danger of tasting its first-ever relegation.
If the club does go down to the Nacional B, few soccer fans will mourn. Since its inception in 1957 — since Grondona and the rest of the founding member were largely from Avellaneda and fans of Racing Club or Independiente, its sky- blue and red colours formed a compromise between the two rivals — and especially in its rise up the divisions during Grondona’s eternal AFA presidency, Arsenal has made few friends. At the start of Don Julio’s reign Arsenal languished in the Primera C, Argentina’s fourth division, having been promoted just once in its 18 years of league soccer. By 2002 it was in the top flight, where it has stayed and thrived despite drawing miniscule crowds to the Viaducto.
The prevailing feeling amongst the rest of the soccer pyramid is that it could not have risen so rapidly without a little help from Grondona. The late president’s influence over Arsenal and Argentine soccer as a whole is legendary. The story goes that on one occasion he forced kick-off to be delayed by 15 minutes, the players left standing on the pitch while the satellite feed to Don Julio’s house was fixed and the game could finally go ahead. Accusations of referees being hand-picked in order to favour the family club were also widespread. In Sarandí, however, where the club bears the name of Grondona and where he is revered as a demi-god, those wicked whispers are rejected. “I do not have to say it myself. Referees have always given their all against us,” Carlos Nanni, a lifelong fan of Arsenal, told La Nación. “Only now are we starting to earn a bit of respect, but we have always been treated as just another team, nobody has given us anything.”
Within the club a similar line holds. Famously frugal, Grondona’s fanatical attention to detail when it comes to finances. “He was the best official in Argentine soccer history. He only spent what he earned at home, and we do the same,” the same newspaper heard from an Arsenal employee. With a membership base of just 8000, every penny counts — although during Grondona’s tenure, Arsenal was logically first in line to receive AFA funds on those rare occasions that he opened the purse-strings. The high point in Arsenal history came at the start of the current decade, with their first-ever Primera División triumph in 2012 and victory in the Copa Argentina a year later. With Gustavo Alfaro on the bench, Cristian Campestrini in the net, commanding defender Lisandro López and the likes of Jorge Ortiz, Ivan Marcone and Carlos Carbonero pushing forward, those titles were by no means without merit.
But five years on, memories of victory laps are already growing faint. The current Arsenal side has no star on the level of those who previously starred, and a chronic lack of funds with which to improve its ailing squad. The result has been predictable. Grondona huffs and puffs, stalking the touchline in the stadium which carries his father’s name, but his efforts have so far been in vain. “I am not despairing because while the results are not happening, the team is growing with every game,” the coach stated, in typically combative fashion. “We have matched both Estudiantes and Newell’s, two teams that are battling for the title.”
No matter what Humberto says, the next few months will be agonising ones for the relegation battlers, which currently trails Olimpo by one point in the hunt for safety and Primera División soccer. Even if Arsenal does squeeze out of trouble in 2016-17, the average points system will leave it in desperate trouble for the coming season. The outlook is bleak for the club, Grondona’s pet project that is struggling in the brave new world that has followed the old master’s death.