River Plate collect the Libertadores trophy for the first time since 1996 / www.cariverplate.com.ar

Barça relegated to the second division? Unthinkable. It simply couldn’t happen. But that was precisely the fate of River Plate in June 2011.

This is the team that has won the Argentinian championship more than any other, plus nine official international titles, and was ranked by FIFA as the ninth best team of the 20th century. River have the sixth highest membership in the world (FC Barcelona are first), the first team shirt is one of the highest selling on the planet and River supporters clubs (filiales) can be found in every corner of the globe. It is not for nothing that the club earned the nickname of the Millionaires.[[DES_1]]

Risen like a phoenix

But none of that could save them. Not even a system whereby rather than direct relegation, in Argentina the teams with the lowest coefficient over the last three seasons are relegated – precisely to prevent little ‘accidents’ like this from happening. Steeped in sporting and financial crisis, River went into a two-legged playoff against Belgrano. In the second leg at the world famous Monumental, when it became apparent that a run of 102 years of top flight football was coming to an end, the atmosphere became so tense that the game was never finished.

To think that just four years after their darkest hour, and River Plate are now about to face FC Barcelona in the Club World Cup Final. After relegation, they bounced straight back up the First Division and by 2014 were Argentinian champions for the 36th time. Soon after, River won the 2014 Copa Sudamericana (their first continental title for 17 years) and the 2015 Recopa Sudamericana as well.

The best was yet to come, although few people would have guessed it when they started the South American equivalent of the Champions League, the Copa Libertadores, with defeat to Bolivian side San José, a draw with Tigres UANL of Mexico and two more draws with Juan Aurich of Peru. River somehow managed to squeeze through on the last day as the poorest ranked second placed team, and that meant a round of 16 match-up with the highest ranked side, their arch rivals Boca Juniors.

Fierce rivalry

Some say Barça v Madrid. Others say Celtic v Rangers. It’s impossible to gauge, but what’s for sure is that the River v Boca rivalry is up there with the biggest. In Latin America, this is not the Clásico. This is the Superclásico, between two teams that, combined, commandeer roughly 70% of all support in Argentina.

A meeting in the knockout stages of the Libertadores is about as Super as the Superclásico can get, and after being so heavily mocked by their Buenos Aires rivals for losing their First Division status, this was River’s chance to get one back. They won the first leg 1-0 in their own stadium, but at Boca’s Bombonera, the River players were attacked with pepper spray at half-time. The match was suspended and Boca were thrown out of the competition.

Continental champions

River progressed, going on to beat Cruzeiro (Brazil), Guaraní (Paraguay) and then Tigres UANL (Mexico) in the final to win the Libertadores for the third time in club history and the first time this century. It’s been quite an adventure, but the ultimate reward is Sunday’s Club World Cup Final, and buoyed by an estimated 15,000 travelling supporters, this is the chance for River Plate to truly put a seal on one of the greatest comeback stories in football history.

But to do that, they’re going to have to beat FC Barcelona. This is a game between two of the most historic and widely supported clubs in the world. Not a Clásico. Not even a Superclásico. This is the Ultra-mega-superclásico! Bring on Sunday at 11.00am CET!

Did you know?

Madrid club Rayo Vallecano has a long-standing relationship with River Plate and their all-white strip with a red diagonal band is directly inspired by the famous River colours.

In August 2000, a 12-year-old Leo Messi spent four days in the River academy. There are contrasting versions of why the club opted not to take him on, and a few months later the future 4-time Ballon d’Or winner was on a plane to Barcelona instead.

Like FC Barcelona, River Plate is a multi-sports club. Aside from football, it has 15 other ‘departments’, including water polo, basketball, tennis, taekwondo and even chess.

Club Atlético River Plate was founded a year and a half after FC Barcelona in May 2001 and the story goes that they chose the name after seeing crates in the port marked with the anglicised form of ‘Mar del Plata’.

Although everyone knows it as El Monumental, the official name of the River stadium is the Estadio Antonio Vespucio Liberti, named after the club’s former president, who died just a few months after it hosted the 1978 World Cup Final, won by Argentina 3-1 against Holland.

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