December 2001: When Racing Club won the league during a financial crisis

Racing Club Argentina League Champions 2001

In December 2001, one of America’s biggest economies is crumbling under an unforeseen financial crisis that would stop all activities in Argentina for weeks, as protests and political turmoil unleashed throughout the nation. However, like often in South America, the beautiful game pieced things back together and enabled Racing Club de Avellaneda to win their first title in 35 years. Here is the story of one of the most unpredictable season endings you will ever hear about. 

Futbol en Argentina

Hincha (noun, from Spanish) – literally translates to fans, as a ventilator. In football terms, these are the Argentinian equivalent of English supporters, who follow their football teams around the country, more often than not in a religious manner. As explained by Fernando Trejo in “Violence and Death in Argentinean soccer in the new Millenium”, these hinchas can be either seated (quite rarely in reality) or can be standing in the end parts of the stadium, called la popular in Spanish. Here, you can separate those hinchas or in the case of the ends of the stadium, where traditionally Italians would say the ultras sit in the curva, you will find las hinchadas. These are “militant fans who provide permanent support” as put by Trejo.

We asked Rafael, a close follower of Argentinian football and journalist for Derniers Défenseurs, what he thought differentiated hinchas from what we know as ultras or supporters in Europe. He told us that fundamentally, both supported their respective clubs. However, in the hincha culture, comes an element of structure and political power. By being a supporter, most of them are socios, who actively participate in the life of the club. Similarly, to Spain, they vote for their president, their favourite programs and can hold directors to account if plans go badly. With this participation comes advantages given by the club outside the stadium, such as help with access to universities and doctors or simply having a club’s childcare. “Your life possibilities become greater when becoming a supporter of a club”, says Rafael. He also adds that this form of supporterism “secularises social interactions between supporters. Different sets of fans do not hang out together, they stay grouped together, even in everyday life.”

The final form of supporterism in Latin America, particularly in Argentina, is las barras, that can be described as the organised groups “that control more than the aesthetic of hinchadas”, as are usually collectively described by the media as barras bravas. This signifies their dangerous aspect, which in the purpose of Trejo’s research into violence in the country’s stadiums, makes perfect sense. It is important however to separate barras and hinchadas. Daniel Edwards, a football journalist based in Buenos Aires, explains that the barras bravas control merchandising, parking rights and things around the stadium. They are “in most cases the focus of violence”. Ultimately, “there is some overlap, but think of it this way: the barra is a part of the hinchada, but not all the hinchada is barra.” Shows how important supporter culture is in Argentina. In our story, while many were fighting for their way of life and their financial survival for weeks, it is ultimately down to their uproar and their will to fight for their team that got them eventually a league title.

El Primer Grande

Founded in 1903, Racing Club de Avellaneda, known as Racing Club or La Academia, is broadly considered as one of the big 5 clubs in Argentina. Based in the South of the country’s capital, Buenos Aires, the club has Independiente for strongest rivals, 16-time winners of the league title, compared to Racing’s 18 first division titles. A strong rivalry has developed, leading to heated derbies of Avellaneda, the city quarter in which they are based. Racing is also named “El Primer Grande” (the first big club) for being the first club in the world to win seven league titles in a row, as well as the first Argentinian club to win the national cup and the Intercontinental Cup (beating Celtic Glasgow in the final). However, while the start of the 20th century and the 1960s were glorious for the club, there was a sudden dip from the 70s onwards, with notably their only relegation to the second division in 1983. They quickly bounced back with a promotion in 1985 and by winning the Supercopa Sudamericana in 1988, a cup opposing past winners of the Copa Libertadores. They were, once again, the first winners of the competition. “El Primer Grande”, again.

However, while the return of silverware to Racing was praised by the hinchas, this was a rare victory in a grim ending of the 20th century. Sure, the hinchada self-declared themselves as the best hinchada of the century, but on the pitch, it was more complicated. At the turn of the century, it has been over three decades since their last league title (1966), an anomaly for a club that had wone 9 titles in the first 25 years of the century. Worse, issues were happening off the field; the club declared bankruptcy in 1998 and closed its doors for several days in March 1999. Saved by a miraculous investment but unable to buy any players, La Academia started relying more on their youth players, with barely any professional experience, which led to more poor results.

Throughout the 20th century, the reputation of the club being ill-fated grew. With poor results lack of silverware and numerous defeats in the final stages of title playoffs, the supporters felt as if they would never win anything again. “The reasons (for the decline) are not easy to track, there was certainly a succession of terrible presidential administrations that left the club and almost penniless, but that’s certainly not something that was unique to Racing in that period.”, elaborated Daniel. “I have origins from Argentina and one of the first things I learnt about Racing was that they were ill-fated”, explains Christofer Hallez, writer for Argentinian football website La Grinta. Rafael explains that with the strong presence of Catholicism in Latin America, inevitably football would be involved. “Story has it that some supporters went to their club’s stadium after a rumour had gone round that Independiente supports had buried 7 black cats under the pitch as a curse. They only found one body. Additionally, at the start of the 2001 crisis, the stadium was exorcised”, he adds.

In the 2000 season, the curse seems to follow the club, which went through 13 games without a win, taking only 15 of 57 points in the Clausura tournament. It only got worse in the Apertura tournament a few weeks later, with a single win in 19 games. At the time, the league was divided between spring and fall tournaments of 19 games, giving a chance to smaller cubs to win the league over a smaller stretch. One of the youth players to break through that year is ex-Inter Milan star, Diego Milito. He declared after that horrific 2000 season to Grafico that the “dressing room looked more like a ceremony at the morgue than a football dressing room. We went home to our families without having the courage to speak to them. At Racing, every year made us suffer twice as much”. The fear of relegation was real, players needed to step up their game in order to stay up and save the club from the abyss. What ensued in the following months was certainly the craziest months in the career of most of the players’ careers.

The Great Argentinian Depression

At the turn of the century, as things got worse on the pitch, the country’s situation off the pitch was also worsening, on a whole other level. Since the end of World War II, the country’s economy had been steadily declining. The 1920s were some of the best years of the country’s history, but those years seemed long gone. “Argentinians love remind people that the United States would come to Argentina to ask for money loans at the turn of the 20th century. This seems impossible today, as we see the IMF coming to Argentina to collect unpaid loans”, says Rafael. The situation took a sharp turn in 1975 when a rodrigazo (economic plan) was set up under the leadership of Isabel Perón, a plan which became a total disaster. So bad that Jorje Rafael Videla, a military officer, took over power and led the country as an authoritarian dictator, only making the situation worse. The 1980s were some of the darkest years in Argentina, with numerous attempts at trying to save the situation.

“In the 1990s, under the presidency of Carlos Menem, a new plan was set up, and while it was incredibly popular and somewhat successful for the first 8-10 years, it was double-edged. This meant the government reaped the positive rewards in the first years, but when markets would crash, the whole country would collapse”, says Rafael. And so, it did. In 2001, riots, protests and deaths ensued as the economic failure from the government’s plan became evident. The local peso currency was devalued by 100% and the public debt rose above 1,000 billion dollars. “It was a succession of things, between bad plans, the dictature and mismanagement from the government, that led to this situation. Before, 0,95 euros was worth 1 peso. Today, it gets you around 240 pesos, showing that Argentina has yet to recover from the situation”, explains Rafael. “The crisis was the explosive conclusion to years of austerity and rising poverty, imposed to ensure payment of debt which was in turn taken to ensure the country’s peso currency could continue pegged to the dollar”, explains Daniel.

The darkest hour came in December 2001. Protesting reached a whole new level. Even with financial support from the US, the country’s GDP and markets completely crashed, Ministers of the economy changed numerous times, with Domingo Cavallo taking the lead into the summer under the presidency of Fernando de La Rúa. Cavallo eventually implemented limits on cash withdrawals of $250 a week, known as the “carrolito” measure since, as well as pay cuts in the public sector, leading to even more riots. The unemployment rate rose to 20% in December as salary payments became fewer, a real signifier of the Great Depression in Argentina.

Tensions reached their peak when IMF refused to release the promised loan of $1.3 billion as they considered the government had not met its budget deficit goals. Taking their voices and their pans to the streets, the large sounds of protesters became known as cacerolazo after the kitchen utensil, crowds amassed in the streets of Buenos Aires and big cities around the country to show their discontent. While de La Rúa declared a state of emergency before fleeing the country in a helicopter, fire and confrontation between protestors and the police became more frequent throughout the capital, peaking on the 20th and 21st December 2001, resulting in 39 deaths. It was in this context that football was supposed to be played to end the season, but did not quite happen as planned.

A season like no other

Rising from the depths of the league in 2000, Milito and his teammates became an absolute force in the Apetura part of the 2001 season. So good that they are in the lead in the table, only a few months after nearly being relegated. A Leicester type season for the neutral, an absolute dream for the hinchadas of the Estadio Presidente Perón. There needs to be a mention that the season could have never been played, with enormous debts present in most clubs in the division, and if it hadn’t been for the government financial support, many clubs would have gone bankrupt and the season would not have been played, as explains Rafael.

Leading by three points with a game to go over their arch-rivals of Independiente, La Academia only needed a point against Vélez Sarsfield to clinch their first league title in 35 years. However, the context around them catches up with them. Already having a reputation of being ill-fated, the club seems to fall down that road again as the season is halted in mid-December. Waking up on the 19th of December, players and the staff see news channels broadcasting images of vandalised cars and supermarkets and riots throughout the country. With the state of emergency ensued by the government, football takes a step back as the country sets alight.

Avoiding the mention of the league title in the press or with his players, the team coach Reinaldo Merlo is gutted to stop at such point in the season and starts believe in the curse. While he agrees football should be stopped as the country is on fire, it is hard not to become a little superstitious. His only request is that players stay at home, avoid getting involved with any protests and stay safe. However, according to SoFoot, 24-year-old Martin Vitali left his house and participated in the mass protests in front of government, demanding for everyone to leave office after such mismanagement. Shook to his core, the player however did admit he was still focussed on playing out the season and winning the title. There started a bureaucratic war.

The government were seeing people dying in the streets, fire set alight in every corner of the capital and police forces in a constant battle to try and keep order in what felt like an apocalypse. Meanwhile, hundreds of hinchas had gathered in front of the players union’s offices to protest against the delay of the final game, which was announced to be played out deep into February. With River Plate on Racing Club’s tail for the title, there was a true division within the city. “Racing was pressuring the union to play the game, even a few days late, as well as River’s game, so that the league could be finished”, explains Benoit from Racing Club France Twitter fan account. Only needing a point to lift the title, Raving just wanted it over and done with, and so did the fans. The local authorities knew that bringing football back would not only ease tensions, but also push the population to look elsewhere while the government delt with the economic situation explains Ilán Rubin, a fan of the club. Eventually, “there were meetings in the Casa Rosada (government house) to see how it would be resolved and it was settled that the match had to be played to bring a bit of social calm and distraction”, he adds.

The decision to play both games was eventually taken by one of the 5 presidents in charge in the space of 10 days, Ramon Puerta. Supported by many politicians, including ex-President of the country and President of Boca Juniors, Mauricio Macri, Puerta told SoFoot that, as a football (also Boca) fan, he felt it was “unjust that they could not play their game. I especially saw the political side of the situation. It was a great opportunity that television channels would show a game for the title and that people talked about football. For the streets to calm down”. Little did he know that calming down was not an option for the hinchas of Racing Club, particularly with the positive outcome.

La Academia and the country celebrate

Other than Independiente, arch-rivals, and River Plate, title contenders, the whole country seemed to be behind Racing Club explains Daniel. On 27th December then, both games are set to be played. River disposed of Rosario Central, beating them 6-1, pilling on the pressure on Racing, who only need a point to win. In these difficult times, everyone came together to support La Academia. Vélez set aside 25,000 seats for travelling Racing fans, but with the tremendous popular support, the club decide to put a huge screen inside their own Cilindro stadium as well, welcoming more than 40,000 supporters as well. The story will remember that the fans filled both stadiums for the same game. Fans were crying when seeing their players in the lead up to the game, praying they were to win the title. Just imagine the pressure on the players’ shoulders.

In Vélez, the tension is at its highest. “Chants don’t pick up. The wind does. Temperatures drop. And torrential rain starts falling. The only thing missing is a hurricane”, explains Georges Quirino in SoFoot. After years of fans giving up on winning and just trying to enjoy their time in the stands, always wanting to be the most original and loudest hinchadas out there, this felt like another instance of the world not wanting the title to go to Racing. Eventually, after 52 minutes, Racing takes the lead with a Gabriel Loeschor goal, relieving the fans of a bit of stress and pressure. But being Racing, it was never going to be an easy win. A huge mistake by Vitali, probably still with his mind at the protests, lead to an equalizer by Vélez. The pressure of losing a title because of his mistake got to Vitali’s head, who feared he would be hung on public display. No chance for another mistake, they need to keep this result to clinch the title.

Drama, tension and tears follow as fans bite off every single nail they have left, before eventually being relieved of their distress as the final whistle blows. The party can start. The tears and the beer flow in the streets. “It created the bizarre moment of people that had lost all of their savings, that had almost nothing left, crying of happiness because Racing had won a title after 35 years. It did bring the biggest imaginable joy to all Racing fans around the country, even though the global situation was pitiful”, explains Ilán.

More than 20 years on, how do the supporters remember it?

“It is probably one of the most important and emotional titles. I’m 29 and it was the first time I saw Racing champion, after being born and taught that Racing had not been champion in many years and that it would be tough. But I think it is even more important for the generation that were kids in the 60s, like my dad. These people had seen what Racing was capable of, and then saw almost nothing for all their lifetime so the 2001 title was huge”, recounts Ilán.

“It was without a doubt the biggest win Racing have achieved in the modern era. Breaking that drought, winning the first league title any fan aged 40 or younger had ever seen, and doing it in thrilling fashion with every game packed to burst was a special moment for everyone connected to the club. Even though Racing have won the league twice since 2001 that remains the win, the end of Racing’s time in the dark and their return to the top ranks of Argentine football”, explains Daniel.

The whole nation remembers that title, and more importantly remembers that Racing won it says Benoit, with the final game being one of the most famous games in the country’s history. However, other than the economic context around the club, this felt like the culminating point of several months of dedication to the club.

“Many ex-players came back to help the club voluntarily, while many fans invested in the club as well as getting external sponsors to save it. It felt very political as the death of the club would have led to mass protests around the nation”, explains Rafael.

Nonetheless, the 2001 title took the club out of the dark ages, back into winning ways. The Intercontinental Cup was a special one but this felt like a new beginning, as shown two league titles since. After years of being deceived, fans felt they had turned a corner. “This idea of failure, diminished after 2001 but we´ve still had our difficulties, and it changed for good in 2014. That year #RacingPositivo started. Now we are the ones that win the matches in the last minutes, we feel like the team is going to end up winning and that the titles can be ours”, explains Ilán. The title will forever be remembered for the crisis around the game, but the game will undoubtedly never leave the minds and the hearts of supporters that were present that day.

Muchas Gracias to Rafael, Daniel, Benoit, Ilán and Christofer for their help.