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As Messi and Higuain thrive, Argentine soccer hits the rocks

By Brian Byrnes, CNN
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Argentina football woes
  • Argentina's big soccer clubs are struggling this season
  • Three of the "Big Five", including River Plate, are threatened by relegation
  • Clubs have relied on selling the likes of Lionel Messi to European clubs to stay solvent
  • The global recession means fewer big transfer deals, which has hit the clubs hard

Buenos Aires, Argentina (CNN) -- The Estadio Monumental Antonio Vespucio Liberti is easily Argentina's most famous stadium. It has played host to the 1978 World Cup (which Argentina won) as well as countless concerts by the likes of The Rolling Stones, U2 and Madonna.

But in the near future, it could be the stage for some far less stellar names.

Known as El Monumental ("The Monument"), it is home to one of Argentina's most storied and successful soccer clubs, River Plate.

Outside the stadium before a recent midweek match, River fans were putting on a brave face, but the reality is that the club is at one of the lowest points in its history.

River is not accustomed to this. I feel bad for the players
--Argentina international Javier Mascherano

"River just changed leadership and the previous president did a terrible job, he sold all the players and now the club is paying the price," said Lucas Zabalow.

River languishes in 18th place out of 20 teams, having won only three matches this season. The last time the Buenos Aires-based team scored a goal was March 14.

With five weeks remaining in the Clausura tournament, River fired coach Leonardo Astrada on Monday. If the club's losing streak continues, River could be playing in the second division next year, an almost unthinkable prospect for its supporters, known as "The Millionaires."

European exodus of top players

"The money the players can get in Europe is much more than River or any other Argentine club can pay them. That's why they leave," explained Gonzalo Cardon, another fan unhappy with River Plate's lowly league position.

Indeed, many have left over the years. Players like Hernan Crespo, Gonzalo Higuain and Javier Mascherano all got their start with River before going on to international acclaim with Europe's top clubs and Argentina's national team.

"It's difficult... from the outside you can say a lot of different things than from the inside," says Liverpool's Mascherano, who played for River between 2003 and 2005.

"But it must be hard for them because River is not accustomed to this. I feel bad for the players."

Relegation in the Argentine league is based on a points-per-match average over a three-year period. The system has traditionally favored big clubs like River, but smaller clubs, such as Lanus and Banfield, have taken home the league trophy in recent years.

The "Big Five" are struggling

River Plate is not alone in its woes. Three of the other "Big Five" Argentine clubs are also struggling at the bottom of the standings: San Lorenzo recently saw its successful coach, Diego Simeone, step down; Racing Club's former management owes millions in back pay; River's cross-town rivals, Boca Juniors, are fretting over the future of their ageing stars.

Boca playmakers Juan Roman Riquelme and Martin Palermo both returned to Buenos Aires after stints abroad. But they have struggled this season to help the club perform to its usual high standards -- just three wins in 14 matches this year have left Boca in 14th place.

Riquelme and Palermo have a contentious personal relationship, and it's unclear yet if they will both be wearing Boca's blue and yellow next season.

Observers say the erratic and often corrupt management of Argentina's top teams have come to rely too heavily on multi-million-dollar international deals for their players. The current global recession has hit Argentine clubs hard.

"It's very expensive to keep all the activities of the club in a good way. [River] have $1 million [in expenses] per month, so they need $12 million to live the whole year. River has to sell players for $12 million. That's impossible. They don't have any player that they could sell for that kind of money," says Argentine sports journalist Hernan Castillo.

Why River will not go down

River is now staring relegation in the face, but for their part, club officials are betting against it.

"That won't happen. First of all they will hire better players and the situation will change. This is a transitory situation and this will change. There's not a chance," said River Plate spokesman Rodrigo Castelli.

"It's like seeing in Spain, Real Madrid or Barcelona play in second division, or Manchester [United, In England]. That won't happen. It's not possible. Not in Argentina."

But in Argentine football, if history is any indicator, it's smart to expect the unexpected.