Argentine Open 2009
Familiar foes break Ellerstina hearts
James Mullan reports from Argentina, where departing La Dolfina captain Mariano Aguerre scored the decisive extra-time golden goal to reclaim the game’s biggest prize in a thrilling final and deny defending champions Ellerstina a historic Triple Crown.
It’s been a hell of a decade for La Dolfina. Since the inception of the team in 2000, Cambiaso’s creation has reached nine of ten possible Argentine Open finals in the intervening years and has lifted polo’s most sought after trophy five times. However, in 2009 they had a score to settle. Their younger rivals Ellerstina inflicted a painful defeat on the side in an extra chukka in 2008, buoying its component parts for a year of individual glories in Europe in 2009. Teaming up again this October, the black shirts then made a strikingly auspicious start to the all-professional Argentine season, winning the Tortugas and Hurlingham Opens at a canter. This teed up the chance of a rarely witnessed Triple Crown clean sweep, and suddenly the world’s polo press and its fans held their breath.
No side has been able to forge success in all three Opens since 2003, when La Aguada’s four Novillo Astrada brothers held off La Dolfina in the Open. And, sure enough, La Dolfina would once again be the greatest concern for the side in search of their place in the history books at Palermo this time round. Cambiaso and his cronies had disappointed at Tortugas and Hurlingham but experience tells us the Open is their target. La Dolfina traditionally save their best form and, crucially, their best ponies for Palermo – it is a prize they are well acquainted with one they have always been loath to see go missing from the club mantelpiece.
Hence, pundits, supporters and sponsors salivated at the prospect of an Open grudge match at the 2009 final. Could the newly promoted 40-goal Ellerstina side scoop another famous victory over their illustrious opponents in the game’s first ever 80-goal final? Could they put the cherry on the cake of an already remarkable Triple Crown campaign and firmly establish themselves as the world’s best team? It was a palate-whetting prospect and rarely can the Open have been so keenly anticipated.
However, Ellerstina nearly crashed out of the tournament before La Dolfina even had the chance to exact their revenge. Having unexpectedly lost 14-13 to the Heguys’ Indios Chapaleufú II side in the group stages, Ellerstina not only needed to beat their last group opponents Pilará to be sure of their spot, they also needed score 13 goals or more en route to victory or, in the event of a low-scoring contest, win by at least two goals. The pugnacious Piaget-sponsored Pilará team proved a popular side with the Palermo faithful and, down 8-6 in the fourth chukka and with the crowd braying for an upset, things didn’t look too good for Ellerstina. At that stage they had surrendered a 6-2 lead and conceded six unanswered goals. It was a major test of their strength of character under pressure, but they dug deep and recovered to win 15-13, with Juan Martín Nero the outstanding performer.
This set up the fourth final between the two powerhouses of the modern game and, for the first six or seven chukkas, viewers watching on television could be forgiven for thinking they had tuned in to a re-run. Despite some moments of great quality, the game adopted a familiar feel as it adopted its customary procession towards extra-time. A communal sense of anticipation swept round the grandstands and appeared to also be affecting the players. At times it was even prosaic, as though everyone knew the contest would go all the way to the wire again. After all, it’s the way La Dolfina win their titles, clinching it with golden goals in a ninth chukka in 2005, 2006 and 2007. Ellerstina gave them a dose of their own medicine in 2008, but the two teams seem inescapably drawn to late drama. Hence, the teams almost seemed to be going through the motions for the first hour and a half, trading goals with a peculiar mix of passion and resigned indifference on their way to the real business of extra time.
Even when Ellerstina opened up a three-goal lead in the third chukka, rather like La Aguada did over La Dolfina in the sides’ last group game, the players appeared to view the gap in the scores with suspicion. And arguably even the umpires became caught up in the idea that an extra chukka was unavoidable. With Ellerstina leading at 16-15 with just a minute of normal time left in the eighth chukka, they quickly awarded a particularly controversial on-the-spot penalty against Pablo MacDonough, as though doing their duty and sending the final to the much-anticipated golden goal.
However, when the predicted ninth chukka eventually arrived, it did not disappoint – producing perhaps the most passionate and dramatic 77 seconds of polo in the Open’s long and prestigious history.
Cambiaso, who had been far from anonymous throughout the final as it was, elevated the drama of his personal contribution further still in the decisive period. First, by contriving to miss one of the easiest chances of his life, then by taking a crunching and acrobatic tumble over the head of his falling pony and, finally, by leading the play that set up the chance for Aguerre to clinch it, 17-16.
It sent La Dolfina’s fans into rapture and left Ellerstina’s Triple Crown dreams in tatters. “When Cambiaso missed, I thought we were in with a good chance,” said Ellerstina’s back Juan Martín Nero. “So of course we tried and did everything we could but, once you go through to the extra chukka, you have to say it basically just comes down to luck. That’s that – it wasn’t our day and we’ll have to wait another year.”
Indeed, that is the irony of the Argentine Open in recent years. It’s the world’s best polo, unquestionably, but so well matched are its two best teams – Ellerstina and La Dolfina – that every year’s result appears destined to be cast cruelly into the hands of fate. However, that’s equally what guarantees such brilliant drama. And, for the neutral, which of us would have it any other way? Roll on 2010 – if you’re looking for a pre-Christmas sporting excursion this December, you’ll be hard pushed to do better than the consistent quality and theatre of the Argentine Open.
116th Argentine Open; 14 November to 13 December 2009; Palermo, Buenos Aires
Result: La Dolfina beat Ellerstina, 17-16
Sponsors: La Martina, Rolex, Mastercard, Mercedez-Benz, Stella Artois, HSBC, Chandon, ESPN
Handicap level: Open (31-40 goals)
Number of team entries: Eight
Attendance at the final: 17,000
Chukka scores (La Dolfina): 2-2; 3-5; 7-7; 10-10; 11-12; 13-13; 15-14; 16-16; 17-16
Most valuable player: Pablo MacDonough
Best playing pony: Dolfina Cuartetera, owned and played by Adolfo Cambiaso.
La Dolfina (40): Adolfo Cambiaso 10; Lucas Monteverde 10; Mariano Aguerre 10; Bartolome Castagnola 10
Ellersstina (40): Facundo Pieres 10; Gonzalito Pieres 10; Pablo MacDonough 10; Juan Martin Nero 10