BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) – River Plate, the most successful team in Argentine football, is facing possible relegation to the second division.
River wraps up the Clausura season on Saturday at home against Lanus. Even a victory may not be enough to save River from a playoff to stay in the topflight of Argentine football.
If River Plate stays up, it is still being humiliated. The club has won 33 league titles - 10 more than Boca Juniors - and is nicknamed the ''Millionaires,'' which reflects the lofty status it once held; Argentina's version of Manchester United or Real Madrid.
River is among six clubs threatened with relegation, but the others are little-followed outside the country - Tigre, Olimpo, Huracan, Gimnasia and Quilmes.
Argentina has a complex league system, and the relegation format is even tougher to understand.
Argentina divides its football year into two 19-game seasons - the Apertura from September until December, and the Clausura from February to June. At the end of both seasons, two teams are automatically relegated. Relegation is based on results over three years - or six seasons.
River is not in danger of going down automatically. It will finish just above that zone, but it is apt to be among two first-division teams facing a two-game playoff against second-division opposition with the survivors playing in the first division. The losers go down.
River has been so-so this season, lodged in the top half of the table with 26 points - 10 behind Velez. But its previous seasons have been awful, which has placed it in danger.
The club also has debts reported at $19 million, forcing it to sell top players to European clubs, further weakening itself on the pitch.
The intrigue has been building.
Referees for this weekend's matches have been hand-picked by Julio Grondona, the powerful president of the Argentine Football Association and the No. 2 man at FIFA to president Sepp Blatter.
Grondona has already weighed in, saying this week that River ''is one of the teams with the best chance of avoiding a relegation playoff.''
That immediately angered Olimpo president Alfredo Dagna, who hinted Grondona may have been expressing a preference that a giant club like River should stay in the first division.
''I don't like this,'' Dagna said.
Argentine newspapers are filled with conspiracy theories, involving suggestions that River will stay up and may get help to do it.
''I think this is all more smoke than reality,'' Dagna said. ''One is not naive, but all we can do is to play football.''