The remarkable decline of Boca Juniors

Martín Palermo holding the 2007 Copa Libertadores
Back in 2007 Boca Juniors were undoubtedly at the very pinnacle of South American football. Coach Miguel Angel Russo had just led them to their fourth Copa Libertadores in eight years. The team that demolished Brazilian side Grêmio over the two legged final included players like Ever Banega, Neri Cardoza, Claudio Morel Rodrígauz, Rodrigo Palacio, Juan Román Riquelme and Martín Palermo.

Few would have predicted then that within four years a team shorn of all but the last two names would find themselves way down in 17th place in the early stages of the Clausura 2011 tornament having finished in 11th 16th and 11th in their last three campaigns or that they would be so far away from even achieving qualification to play in the international tournaments they utterly dominated for the best part of a decade.

The decline was not instantaneous, they won the Apertura and the Recopa Sudamericana in 2008 but the downwards trajectory since then has been unmissable. People can point to many factors to explain what has happened and everyone in Argentina has an opinion.

It is clear that the current team has suffered from the facts that Riquelme has barely played in two years after developing legs of glass and talismanic goalscorer Martín Palermo has struggled to find his goalscoring touch and lost all of the little pace that he had back in 2007. It is also clear that the club has suffered from unprecedented managerial turmoil, with eight managerial changes since Russo's departure in 2007. the rate of managerial changes has increased to such a rate that the position has changed hands five times since the beginning of 2010.

Julio César Falcioni is the latest manager
to try to turn things around at Boca.
After current manager Julio Cesar Falcioni was installed I predicted that one of his biggest challenges would come were he to consider dropping ageing club legends like Riquelme and Palermo. The Riquelmegate storm that arose when Falcioni left a fit and willing Riquelme out of the team to play All Boys in the third round of the Clausura confirmed my predictions. The fans quite clearly have more loyalty to the players that served the club through the most successful period in their history than to a new manager that many are still sceptical about.

To me Falcioni was an odd choice of manager for a club like Boca Juniors, but he does seem to have the pragmatic attitude necessary to begin to rebuild confidence at the Bombonera but the board and the fans would have to dramatically lower their expectations in order to give him the time to succeed, something they refused to do for the previous "permanent" manager Claudio Borghi who was shown the door after only fourteen games of the Apertura last year.

It is obviously impossible to attribute such a decline to one factor but for me the biggest contributor to the situation the club find themselves in is the lack of squad stability. Their grandstand enganche Riquelme has been injured or out of form for the past couple of seasons but for me the really big issue is that the majority of the players from 2007 have departed and the academy and transfer policy have not bought in adequate replacements. As the club's achievements have slipped further and further away from expectations the turnover of players has become even more frantic than the turnover of coaching staff. In their game against Vélez Sársfield at the beginning of March this year only two players remained from the team that played Vélez a little over a year ago.

18 year old Ever Banega was one of the revelations of
Copa Libertadores 2007.
For me the most significant departure amongst many since Boca Juniors lifted the Libertadores in 2007 was that of the 19 year old midfielder Ever Banega who joined Valencia for a reported fee of $18 million. I remember thinking at the time that he was leaving "too soon" and that the benefits to both club and player of staying for another couple of seasons would have been immense. However the reported fee was so high that Boca almost had to cash their chips and take the huge sum on offer for a teenager with only 40 odd games worth of first team experience and no goals, given the possibility that he could subsequently have suffered a career threatening injury or dip in form at any time.

As it is the decision to take the cash has not been great for either party, Banega didn't really establish himself at Valencia, spent a season on loan at Atlético Madrid and then began to make a positive impression in a struggling team after his recall to Valencia in 2009. Playing well in underachieving sides was not enough for him to find his way into Diego Maradona's 2010 World Cup squad, an omission criticised as one of Maradona's worst by myself and other respected South American football commentators.

Had Banega stayed in Argentina for another couple of years and continued to improve on the form he showed as an 18 year old back in 2007 in the blue and gold of Boca Juniors he would probably have benefited from much more big game experience than as a bit part player for two underachieving sides overseas.

How could Maradona have left him out of the World Cup squad had he been the most obvious star of the one team that Diego could never have ignored? Had Banega played in that notorious game against Germany, Mascherano would not have been the only engine in the middle of the park and the team could possibly have avoided their most humiliating World Cup exit since they failed to qualify for World Cup 1970.

Returning to the plight of Boca Juniors, they have not even qualified to play in the last two Copa Libertadores and given their poor start to the Clausura they seem very unlikely to even qualify for this year's much derided Copa Sudamericana  that they won back-to-back in 2004 and 2005. As I have said, Banega's sale was one factor amongst many in this decline, however it is illustrative of how the voracious appetites for young Argentine talent in Europe and Mexico is now so powerful that it can even bring giants to their knees.

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