SAO PAULO (AP) – One down, 37 to go. After two decades of short league championships River Plate kicked off what is sure to feel like a marathon campaign in Argentina's second division with a 1-0 victory over Chacarita Juniors at El Monumental Tuesday night, taking the first small step towards the redemption of a quick return to the top flight.
River was condemned to life in Argentinian football's domestic wilderness after falling to Belgrano de Cordoba in a two-legged relegation play-off in June, and following confirmation that Julio Grondona and the AFA (Argentinian Football Association) had finally backed down from its madcap plans to create a 38 team first division, Los Millonarios' promotion charge - or rather, its canter - starts now.
"It was a happy day. I'm happy [we] have started on the right foot," said a relaxed Matias Almeyda in his post-match press conference. So relaxed was he that Ole described his demeanor as akin to a regular Joe reclining in his local cafe, kicking back in his "informal attire, calmly analytical and with both feet on the ground."
It was the new coach's debut on the bench. On any bench, in fact. The 37-year-old who captained the side last season had been something of a revelation since coming out of retirement to return to the club.
Upon announcing his retirement in 2005, Almeyda was looking forward to spending his spare time on the farm. But life away from the game was harder than he could ever have expected.
"When you stop playing, your dreams evaporate," he told Fifa.com last year. "I went through a phase when I only ever went out to pick my children up from school. I suffered panic attacks and there were times when I felt like I was going to die."
He found his way back into the game though Showbol, an indoor competition for veterans. He then had a very brief spell Norway in 2007 before finally sealing a sensational return to the game with River Plate four years after his initial retirement. Almeyda's love for the club is unrivaled.
"The River fans deserve happiness," he says. "We are all River... and we all want River back to what it was...we want our smile back."
And he isn't the only returning River alumni off in search of that smile this season. Fernando Cavenaghi returned and immediately pledged his undying commitment to the cause.
"I said after the relegation that I wanted to return, no matter the consequences," the former Spartak Moscow and Bordeaux man revealed after sealing his return last month.
"I talked to the president of Internacional and said I wanted to leave to return to Argentina... River is my home."
Alejandro Dominguez, too, has 'come home', joining on loan from Valencia, and adopted a similar rhetoric upon his unveiling, while Cristian Ledesma has come back from Colon.
A year is long time in soccer. If River does make an immediate a return, two more champions would have been crowned in its absence. Gone, but never forgotten, as the most successful club in Argentinian soccer history, River will enjoy as much press coverage as ever this season, with Argentina's biggest soccer sites having already added an extra tab next to all the Primera Division club badges to fasttrack our leap to the latest reports from El Monumental.
The short-term goal is to get back to where they were, and as quickly as possible, but the long term goal for River has to be simply acknowledging the long term's existence.
Argentina's short championships - the top flight is split into opening and closing stages - have bred a culture of short-termism among the country's top clubs, with the grandes (Argentina's 'big five' of River, Boca, San Lorenzo, Independiente and Racing Club) all having struggled in recent seasons.
The emergence of Velez, over the bridge in Avellaneda, and Estudiantes, an hour or so down the coast in La Plata, as the two strongest teams in the country is no coincidence - both are run more astutely than the big boys in the city have been in recent years.
During its first home game of the season on Monday night, Boca Juniors fans had mocked their great rivals by lighting candles and interspersing the familiar chants of 'dale dale dale Boca' with songs of how it will 'never play the gallinas (chickens) again.'
While Boca fans will no doubt continue to rejoice in their rival's misfortunes, they might want to take a quick glimpse at their own plight - it currently sits 13th in the three-year relegation table; Racing and San Lorenzo 15th and 16th respectively.
The short championships tend to leave every victory feeling twice as sweet, and every defeat disappointment twice as disappointing. For everybody, the pressure is doubled.
After kicking off last season's Clausura (closing) with seven points from three matches, River were seen as genuine title contenders; two points from the next three left it as relegation candidates. The three consecutive victories that followed that had it in the hunt for the title again; one win in its final ten matches eventually saw it relegated.
With the Argentinian media prone to meteoric levels of hyperbole when reporting on River and Boca, a good old fashioned 38-game campaign could provide the breathing space Almeyda needs to get the club back on track.
So too could it for a talented generation of youngsters to find their feet. The recently departed Erik Lamela is one of the most talented to emerge from the Argentina in recent years, but the teenager undoubtedly struggled to show his best with the weight of one of South America's biggest soccer clubs weighing so heavily on his shoulders last season.
Nineteen-year-old Daniel Villalva and Roberto Pereyra, 20, both have the potential to be future stars and their development may just be aided by a step down a division; as could that of Rogelio Funes Mori.
President Daniel Passarella took a gamble when holding out for money for the young striker when Benfica came sniffing around last season, a gamble that proved costly as the 20 year-old's goals quickly dried up. Prone to snatching at chances, the step down a level may be the perfect environment for the U-20 international to mature.
Tuesday's was River's first competitive victory since April. Next up is a trip to Independiente Rivadavia and Almeyda is intent on keeping his players' feet firmly on the ground - right next to his own.
"Without the [right] attitude we will suffer," said Almeyda after his coaching debut. "You play to win and have to work [together] for the team to play well."
The work starts now. And this time it's a marathon, not a sprint. River took one almighty step backwards in June; it has 37 games to make sure the next one is in the right direction.