The January transfer window is consistently an anticlimax in Argentina. Possible sales are discouraged by the biggest clubs' desire to keep their squads intact for the Copa Libertadores, while a limit of two incoming transfers obviously limits maneuvering on the other side.
The current Southern Hemisphere summer, however, has seen even less activity than usual in the nation’s biggest clubs. A new wave of austerity is biting into Argentine society: and its iconic football institutions are no exceptions to the rule.
The lack of big transfers to Europe, which help to bring foreign currency into the clubs’ dollar-starved accounts, has contributed to a lack of activity domestically. Teams such as Boca and River can generally count on young stars being snapped up for decent fees, generating extra income and helping to fuel the latest round of purchases.
But European clubs are also operating more cagily when it comes to talents across the Atlantic Ocean. Roma’s signing of hot playmaking talent Leandro Paredes, dubbed by some as the new Juan Roman Riquelme, was one of the more eye-catching moves so far in the window.
A look at the fine print, however, tells a wider story. Paredes was snapped up on loan by the Italian club, with an option to buy (and almost immediately farmed out to Chievo); a transfer technique used more and more by teams in Europe when dealing with South American prospects. Buying Paredes outright could cost up to $10 million; his loan on the other hand, for the next 18 months, will cost Roma a bargain $1.4m (Telam).
It is great, almost no-risk business for buyers. But the repercussions for the Argentine league are obvious; fewer liquid assets, less investment for Boca, and hence less money to reinvest in the transfer market and kick-start activity locally.
Blaming the lack of interest and big sales from the Old Continent, however, tells only half of the story. The real reason for the new era of belt-tightening comes from above, at a time when the Argentine nation itself suffers from a devalued currency and lack of foreign investment.
To put it bluntly, whether you are Boca Juniors or Primera Division minnows All Boys, there is no money to spend. Indeed, for All Boys there is barely enough to pay those already on the books; Eric Weil of the Buenos Aires Herald revealed at the start of the year that some Albo players were owed seven months of back wages, and were told they could leave by president Roberto Bugallo.
Argentine clubs are dependent on funds proportioned by the national government, who control the television rights of the top two divisions via the Futbol para Todos program. With that source of income already gone for the year—indeed, many teams have received an advance on the money due for 2015— belt-tightening and careful spending is in vogue.
Of the 20 teams in the top flight, just nine have used their full allocation of purchases at the time of writing. Four clubs have not made a single signing. Interestingly, the vast majority of transfers have been made from teams outside Argentina, or of free agents: the domestic market between clubs appears to be non-existent in the sweltering heat of January.
There are many contributing factors which have led to the dull window. After years of profligacy and unofficial permission from governing body, Julio Grondona’s Argentine Football Association (AFA), for clubs to place themselves heavily in debt in order to make transfers, a new era has begun.
A report from Infobae carried out in December 2012 revealed that River Plate, one of the league's heavyweights, were AR$297 million ($37 million) in the red. Independiente, who last year fell into the second tier for the first time in their history, owe a staggering AR$330 million, while across the traditional "Big Five" (River, Independiente, Boca, Racing Club and San Lorenzo) the shortfall adds up to AR$1.14 billion ($142.5 million), more than double the debt recorded two years previously.
The numbers are small change compared to some of Europe's finest, but in the context of local football and the scarcity of income sources, running such huge losses translates into serious financial difficulties.
The penny dropped at the end of 2013 when Colon’s money troubles led to both a six-point deduction for not paying a transfer fee, and a players’ strike (Via Buenos Aires Herald). There was even talk of a forced relegation for the Santa Fe team, previously held up as an example of intelligent investment before the bubble burst last year.
In response, and following government instructions laid down by hard-line Cabinet Chief Jorge Capitanich, new demands of responsibility in the boardroom were ordered by the AFA. “The plan is for all clubs to present a financial plan, a budget and strict adherence to that budget against transfers,” the politician warned, and the message has been heard (via La Nacion).
That is not to say that the transfer merry-go-round has ground to a complete halt. There have been several astute purchases, and some that cannot help but grab attention. River Plate’s resigning (for a third spell) of Fernando Cavenaghi, the man whose 21 goals helped the Millonarios escape the Nacional B division back in 2012, stands out as an excellent piece of business for new president Rodolfo D’Onofrio.
Boca, meanwhile, have focused on shoring up a leaky back line. Former Espanyol defender Juan Forlin is an encouraging signing, while former Lanus man Hernan Grana is a solid performer at national level and adds depth to the centre-back position.
At the more exotic end of the spectrum, two Colombian imports with impeccable lineage stand out. Tigre moved for Sebastian Rincon, son of the legendary Fredy; not to be left behind, Olimpo moved for the offspring of Adolfo "The Train" Valencia, Jose Adolfo. While the two youngsters are relatively untested in high-level football, their surnames alone promise a lot of entertainment in the Argentine top division this year.
There is also one hidden benefit to the stalling of the transfer market. Unable to trawl the league for six or seven journeymen on short-term or loan contracts, clubs are looking inwards for new talent. Argentina’s famed young stars, who have fed Europe’s top leagues for years, are now forming a greater part of clubs' starting line-ups.
A team such as Racing Club, one of the bigger institutions in the country, ended the Inicial 2013 season in December with seven academy graduates playing part in the last game. San Lorenzo, one of the few cash-rich institutions at the present time thanks to injections from television mogul Marcelo Tinelli, boasted five youth stars in the team that drew with Velez Sarsfield and lifted the title.
Velez meanwhile, often held up as the model of a well-administrated Argentine club, fielded six in the same game, while almost the entire substitutes’ bench was composed of homegrown potential.
Living within means does not make for very sexy newspaper titles. The big Buenos Aires dailies are accustomed to filling pages and websites with mountains of rumours; but this January, amongst the usual deluge of summer reports and beach gossip, the football pages have looked sparser and less speculative than usual.
But while the static market may not be great for editors, it may just be the key for a more sustainable, less debt-laden local game. Austerity has hit Argentina and the Primera Division, but first indications are that the sport is ready to roll with the punches and adapt to its new financial realities.