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El Campeón De Las Cábalas – Racing Club And The Historic 2001 Apertura

El Campeón De Las Cábalas – Racing Club And The Historic 2001 Apertura

By Neeraj Sathya.

Choripan is an Argentine barbeque sandwich. Made with beef and pork sausage, it’s usually prepared as an appetiser before the famous ‘asado’, and sold very commonly across the nation in every football stadium. The smoky, seasoned chorizo with many varieties of bread and sauces make it one of the most beloved dishes of not just the natives, but the whole of South America.

And that was why when Racing Club’s manager Reinaldo ‘Mostaza’ Merlo and his assistant Rene Daulte reached La Plata, with their stomach growling for a bite, they did not have to think twice about having a choripan.

It was the eighth matchday of the 2001 opening tournament, or Clausura as they called it in the yesteryears of Argentina. Racing had an away match versus Gimnasia, city rivals of Estudiantes and also the last club Diego Maradona coached before his death. It was a must-win match for Racing who were flirting with relegation, but food was a higher priority than discussing tactics at that time for Mostaza and Daulte.

The manager took a bite of the choripan and Daulte finished it before going to the sidelines. After a goalless first half, in the 79th minute, thanks to a header by Uruguayan striker Osvaldo Canobio, Racing found the back of the net and emerged victorious. Thrilled and relieved by the result, Merlo and Daulte made a habit of having a choripan before every match. And there began a series of ‘cabalas’ that the entire squad of Racing upheld for almost a year.

It’s no news that superstitions are a part of Argentine football. The terms ‘Mufa’ and ‘Cabala’ are parts of their daily lives from Puerto Madryn to San Salvador de Jujuy. Cabala refers to auspicious signs or good luck charms, while ‘Mufa’ stands for the opposite. The surge in the usage of these terms during the Qatar World Cup proved the extent to which Argentina believes in them. AFA president Chiqui Tapia, players, fans, everyone did their part to not cause something that would bring Mufa.

Despite being one of the ‘big fives’ of Argentine football, and also called ‘el primer grande’ or ‘the first great’ for winning seven consecutive titles between 1913 and 1919, Racing were in need of all the luck in the world at the start of the millennium. Apart from the struggles to stay up in the first division, it had also been 35 years since they won the league title, the last one being in 1966.

Whilst their archrivals Independiente were busy filling their trophy cabinet with Libertadores titles during this period, Racing’s Kafkaesque run saw them getting relegated in 1983. Even though they bounced back to the top flight in 1985 and won the Supercopa Libertadores (a competition of previous Libertadores winners) in 1988, the league title still remained out of reach.

Finishing the 1993 Apertura with just one point short of the champions or being the runner-up again in the 1995 Apertura were not enough for them. That wasn’t the benchmark ‘La Academia’ had set for themselves. A good number of the fans believed it was because of the seven cats that were buried under the stadium decades ago by Independiente fans.

The rivalry between Racing and Independiente goes back all the way to the 1910s. The feud was so fierce that fans of La Roja could not stand Racing winning the Intercontinental Cup against Celtic in 1967, so they broke into El Cilindro, Racing’s home ground, and buried seven black cats to put a curse on the world champions. Trophies began eluding Racing. The string of bad luck made everyone associated with the club believe that the curse was real.

In 1980, one of the first things on the to-do list of newly appointed manager Juan Carlos Lorenzo was digging up the skeletons of the cats. The club gave in to his peculiar demand and they discovered the remains of six cats and replaced them with six dead toads, which they believed would bring luck. The seventh and last one was still in the subsurface, yet to be unearthed.

That was also not enough. Racing’s performances, both on and off the field, continued to decline. In 1998, thousands of fans gathered together at the stadium and took part in an exorcism to get rid of the evil spirits. Holy water being poured all over the ground by a priest was also ultimately in vain as the club declared bankruptcy in the following year and had to be salvaged by being taken over by a private corporation.

Fast forward to 2001, just two days after the new year, Reinaldo Merlo took over the charge of Racing. The squad he inherited was not too shabby, which also included a 22-year-old Diego Milito in it. Merlo, as a player, was a ‘one club man’. Known as one of the best ball-winning defensive midfielders in the history of Argentine football, he spent the entirety of his career in River Plate. Popularly known as ‘Mostaza’ (mustard) for his blonde hair, Merlo managed a number of clubs, including teams in Colombia and Bolivia, before coming to Avellaneda.

The habit of having a Choripan went on, even after the beginning of the Apertura (the opening tournament) in August. And that is when the fairytale began. Everything started to click. Mostaza and Daulte would treat themselves to a choripan before every match and yield results from it. The only time they could not get their hands on a choripan was before the fixture against Boca Juniors in La Bombonera as they only served hamburgers in the arena that day. That was the only match Racing lost in the tournament.

That was just one of many Cabalas the entire squad followed for months. The famous saying ‘paso a paso’ (step by step) was popularised by Mostaza during this period. He said it first when a journalist asked him about the chances of winning the Apertura after victory against Newell’s. Mostaza replied ‘paso a paso’, in order not to jinx their chances. A hardcore Cabulero, he had also restricted the players from saying the word ‘champions’ before a match.

Mostaza repeated the same after defeating Talleres, Gimnasia and more. ‘Paso a paso’ became one of the most famous sayings in Argentina. He never said anything else to fans and media alike. Such was the level of his superstition. But after the goalless draw vs Banfield on December 9, where Racing were denied two goals because of refereeing mistakes, the manager lost his temper and said “Now I am angry. We are winning the championship”.

Mostaza making a ‘rock horn’ sign every time opponents started an attack was one of the most circulated images in the country at that time. Even though his facial expressions and body language seemed pretty indifferent, his fingers would be held that way. Whatever the reason maybe, it worked more often than not and the number of cabalas kept increasing.

The shirts he wore while standing on the sidelines also caught the attention of the fans and media. Mostaza would wear the same navy blue shirt every time Racing played until they lost against Boca. After that, he replaced it with a chequered, half-sleeve one, with a lighter shade of blue. In an interview that was given after many years, he showed both of those ‘lucky shirts’. “I washed them, ironed them, and put them away. I never wore these again”, said Mostaza.

Cabalas didn’t stop there as well. Mostaza once cancelled the match of Racing’s reserve team as it rained, but the senior team won their league fixture later. Being the persnickety man he is, the gaffer took that also as an omen and the reserve team were not to be played again. “The kids hated Mostaza for that”, recalled former midfielder Jose Chatruc in an interview with TyC sports.

Mostaza always asked the players to enter the field after the rivals did. And there was also the incident where he did not let the players get into the team bus before an away match because it was not the usual one that came to pick them up.

The manager was not the only one who endorsed and followed these beliefs. The left-back Carlos Arano’s mother once bought ‘Pico Dulce’, a colourful lollipop with one flavour on the top of another, for players before a match. Racing won that fixture and the players adhered to having it before every match.

The whole squad also used to listen to the songs of Leo Mattioli, the legendary ‘cumbia’ singer. A genre that is popular in Argentina, cumbia has also had Colombian as well as Peruvian influences on it. What started out as a pre-match ritual during the Clausura tournament earlier in the year continued during Apertura as well. Songs by Daniel Agostini and the band La Nueva Luna were also popular among the players.

The well of anecdotes is still far from dry. Newly signed right back, Francisco ‘Panchito’ Maciel also had packed his lucky boots in the suitcase before catching the flight from Almagro. He would always put it on, be it for training or matches. However, one day during the warmup, he realised that the once proud boots, worn thin and cracked, finally surrendered to the relentless miles.

But Maciel, another big believer of ‘cabalas’ would not throw it away. He was adamant about playing with it and his teammates urged him to get rid of it. “Once the tournament was over, Claudio Ubeda poured alcohol on it and set it on fire from outside of the stadium”, said Panchito in an interview with TyC Sports.

Just like Mostaza, one of his players was also very particular about what he wore. Jose Chatruc, who played for Platense till he joined Racing had two lucky underpants; one red, one blue. He alternatively wore them till the end of the tournament. He went with the latter on the decisive day and believes it played a role in their historical achievement.

The club themselves stuck with a certain habit, which they still follow. When Racing lifted the title in 2001, the squad had two Colombians in it; Gerardo Bedoya and Alexander Viveros. Willfully or unwittingly, Colombians became a regular presence in the club’s rosters After that. Racing would win the league title again in 2014 and 2018/19 after that, and the compatriots of Carlos Valderrama being a part of those teams only strengthened the fans’ beliefs.

In the 21st century alone, Racing have signed over a dozen of them, the latest being legendary Juan Fernando Quintero. Oddly enough, Viveros also had followed a cabala of always wearing a certain jacket, even in the middle of summer.

Even with the backing of all the cabalas and soaring spirits that existed in the squad, Mostaza’s men had one last barrier to overcome. On December 19 the nation declared a state of emergency, resulting from the economic crisis which had been haunting them for a while. Protests and anarchy erupted, and football also grounded to a halt in Argentina, with its future up in the air.

Racing were in need of only a draw to lift the title at that point, not to mention and they also had the fear of losing the title to River Plate, who were trailing behind them by only three points. Mostaza would not budge an inch and asked for the remaining match to be played in December itself, in spite of the government’s decision to resume football in February of the next year. For someone as credulous of cabalas as him, having trepidations was on the cards.

The fans did not sit back and watch this. They had waited for 35 years to watch their club become champions again and not even a nationwide predicament was going to stop them. They agitated louder than ever and that belligerence saw a result, as those in power finally allowed the last matchday to be played on December 27. River Plate would face Rosario Central in a home match whereas Racing went to Liniers to face Velez at Jose Amalfitani Stadium.

25,000 Racing fans travelled to sit at the away stand, and another 40,000 went to El Cilindro to watch the match on screens. To this day, fans of Racing talk proudly about it as the day they ‘filled two stadiums at once’. With the whole crowd on their toes, Gabriel Loeschbor, the centre-back, headed the ball into the net in the 52nd minute from a set-piece. A tsunami of cheers crashed over both arenas simultaneously.

The celebrations did not last, nevertheless. Velez equalised after 24 minutes. River had already thrashed Rosario Central by scoring six against one, and all the hosts had to do was score another in the remaining minutes to rip Racing’s dreams into shreds. But fate cannot be that cruel – at least for more than 35 years with numerous swings and misses.

It may have been the culmination of all cabalas that Racing followed or the mere fact that another goal just did not happen against them in that match, but after three and half decades, they had become champions of Argentina by one point. Fans broke into tears of happiness, players lost their roof and Mostaza was carried around the ground on their shoulders.

Long title droughts have never been news in Argentina. Many giants have fallen or even perished over the course of time, failing to turn things around. But a club as big as Racing faithfully following seemingly silly rituals and beliefs just over two decades ago is both fascinating and too ridiculous for words.

The first thing that Mostaza asked for after being the manager of the club was to find the skeletal remains of the seventh cat. This time he asked to look below the concrete slabs as well. And as fate (or a mere coincidence) would have it, they found it under one such structural slab behind one of the goalposts in, you guessed it, 2001. Racing would later build a statue of him for putting an end to their abject misery.

Practising Mufas and Cabalas are still common across Argentina. Eduardo Coudet, who won the first division title for Racing in the 18/19 season, would never take off his scarf, even under the scorching sun, as he believed doing so could be a mufa.

Players of Argentina believed Messi would win the 2021 Copa America as he picked a card of five ‘copas’ (four Copas hinting at the four finals he lost with Argentina and the fifth one indicating his victory) during a game prior to the tournament in Brazil is another recent example. Argentina ultimately won the cup and Messi got that card tattooed on his calf not so long ago.

One can be either intrigued by these or just laugh it off. But when a fair share of one of the biggest footballing nations in the world still counts on cabalas and mufas in desperate times, looking past it is not an option from psychological and sociological standpoints.

There is a reason why ‘creer o reventar’ (believe or die) is one of the most well-known maxims in Argentina. With hindsight, Racing Club and their 2001 Apertura title victory is the quintessential example of it.