The Majority of European leagues have now drawn to a close for their summer breaks and a month yet to go until the World Cup the world turns to South America for any form of football action beyond the Gossip columns. In Argentina the season is all but over as Argentinos Juniors have taken the title just a few hours ago but in Brazil the National championship begun just one week ago. The rest of the CONMEBOL (South American) nations are part way through their national championships.
To the casual observer the league formats seem somewhat exotic and esoteric with their multi stage formats that cannot be found anywhere in Europe. It is also quite daunting because there is very little uniformity between the various leagues. Brazil is one of the only South American countries to currently use the European style home and away round-robin league format. The other nations all fall under one of the following categories:
- Apertura & Clausura with no post-season – 2 champions
- Apertura & Clausura with post-season – 2 champions
- Apertura & Clausura with 1 overall champion
Apertura and Clausura literally translated are ‘Opening’ and ‘Closing’ respectively. The first two formats are very similar and may differ from league to league with subtleties related to the method in which relegation is decided. The biggest difference will be in the manner in which a champion is elected for the tournament. Post-season tournaments can take the form of play-offs in a knockout format or mini-leagues (Liguilla in Spanish).
The first category is the simplest format of competition and it is the format which has been adopted by most Central and South American associations including three of the biggest football nations in the region, Argentina, Mexico and Uruguay. These three nations provide the blueprint for many other smaller association.
In 1990 the AFA switched from hosting it’s season in the calendar year (most southern hemisphere sports are hosted in this manner) to match the European calendar, the season now runs from August to June. The opening tournament, Apertura, is hosted from August to December with the Clausura being played February to June.
Each tournament is a single round robin league, 19 games are played between the 20 teams and a winner is the side that finishes top of the league at the end of the tournament. This year’s titles have been won by Banfield (Apertura) and Argentinos Juniors (Clausura). As far as South American football goes (excluding Brazil), this is about as simple as it gets.
Relegation is decided based on a table of average points from the past 3 seasons (6 tournaments). The Two worst teams are relegated automatically and the next two sides (17th and 18th) playoff against the 3rd and 4th sides for the right to play in the top flight next season. Therefore the number of teams relegated each season varies between 2 and 4.
The country’s most successful side, River Plate have won 33 titles, have fallen away after years of financial turmoil and instability. Next year they are at risk of dropping into the second tier of Argentinian football. In the past many associations have found any loophole or ruling they possibly can to try and avoid dropping the big clubs from their top division. The average points system itself is a mechanism designed with the sole intention of protecting the big teams who may be distracted from the league while competing in continental tournaments such as the Copa Libertadores or the Copa Sudamericana. It appears unlikely that River will be afforded such a luxury if they find themselves in this predicament next season.
The only other country in South America to have copied Argentina’s format is Paraguay, and this is only a recent uptake. It is currently in it’s third season of crowning two champions per season. The other league types will be covered in the next parts of this series.