Julio Grondona, president of the Argentine FA, died in July 2014. Don Julio’s 35-year tenure at the top of Argentine football has left a legacy of fan violence, an anachronistic football set-up and a proposed 30-team top league. Joel Richards looks at the prospects for Argentinean football in a post-Grondona world
At first, Thursday’s fixtures were going to be cancelled. Then, it was decided, they were going ahead, as planned. Then, only Boca and River’s games – on Wednesday – were to be postponed. But then they too were to go ahead. Then the whole midweek set of fixtures were to be cancelled, until it was decided that, in fact, they too were all going ahead.
Anarchic, chaotic and embarrassing was the verdict over how the Argentine FA (AFA) managed – or rather, mismanaged – a nationwide general strike called for late August 2014. Strike action, called over inflation, job losses and because the 2015 presidential campaign is already under way, threatened to disrupt midweek first division games. Security staff for games would be observing strike action, even if in the end a solution was found to this particular stumbling block. The way the AFA dealt with the problem was so erratic that not even social media sites designed to respond to second-by-second updates were able to keep up, as the decisions were made, unmade, changed, swapped, mulled over, and then finally left exactly as they had always been.
There were many players in this particular farce in Argentine domestic football – a situation that left clubs allowing their players time off only to urgently call them back, fans unable to arrange tickets or travel, and a highly disgruntled media observing the whole situation. The Argentine game is gloriously idiosyncratic at the best of times, but in among the confusion there was a rare point of unanimity to be found over this particular episode. If Grondona had been around, none of this would have happened.
For the past four decades, the only constant in the quicksand of Argentine football had been Julio Humberto Grondona, president of the AFA, vice-president of FIFA, and a man considered as adept in the field of politics and football as the finest players his association’s clubs ever produced.
There are two biographies of Julio Grondona outlining a career that crossed economic and political crises in the country, and scandals of varying natures and degrees of intensity relating directly or indirectly to the AFA and himself. As he himself once quipped, ‘I have had more accusations than Al Capone.’ One of those biographies is named after what the former AFA president himself is said to have liked being called and which hints to a certain style of leadership – Don Julio. The other was titled in honour of Grondona’s philosophy towards leading Argentina football – Todo Pasa. Everything passes.
‘In 1985, the media were very critical of those of us who governed football, and of the coach of the national team,’ Noray Nakis told me, sat in his office at a jewellery store in the heart of Buenos Aires. I had gone to interview Nakis for a BBC radio report on Grondona’s legacy. Still with a heavy accent to his Spanish, he is president of Deportivo Armenio, founded by the Argentine Armenian community, and was one of the die-hard Grondonistas, a regular fixture on the AFA board of directors. He recalled how Grondona would write down all the criticism – and names of critics – on a piece of paper, until one day Grondona showed the paper to Nakis after Argentina won the World Cup in 1986 and said, ‘you see? Todo pasa.’ Nakis had the phrase inscribed on the inside of a ring and gave it to Grondona. ‘He always wore the ring. When people would come to him with any complaint, he’d say, ‘everything passes.’
Death of a Don
Grondona’s political nous maintained him close to Sepp Blatter in FIFA, as vice-president with a number of key positions in Zurich, in particular the TV-rights department. Grondona, who famously did not speak English, was responsible for the lucrative global rights deals that secure roughly 60% of FIFA’s $4 billion income for the 2010-2014 cycle.
Grondona took over as AFA president in 1979. His presidency spanned the rise, and fall, of Diego Maradona the player, the subsequent search for the next Maradona, and then the rise of Leo Messi, a rise that a nation hoped would deliver its crowning moment at the World Cup in Brazil.
Had the finishing of Gonzalo Higuaín and Rodrigo Palacio been as utilitarian as Argentina had been as a team in reaching the final in Brazil, perhaps the albiceleste would have lifted the trophy, and perhaps Messi would have silenced those who still need to argue of whether he or Maradona is the greater player. Instead, Brazil were spared the ultimate of embarrassments of hosting a competition won by their neighbours, and Julio Grondona returned to Argentina after his ninth World Cup as AFA president, his country having reached its third World Cup final in that time frame. Grondona passed away shortly after the tournament, aged 82.
Any look at Argentine football after the World Cup is necessarily done through the optic of a post-Grondona, because the game is defined by his 35 years as AFA president. Argentine football is far-removed from the opulence of FIFA, the sanitised World Cup stadia or the heavily-branded and corporate European leagues. The multimillion contracts that the likes of Messi, Carlos Tevez and Sergio Agüero command in Spain, Italy, and England, are far from the reality they left behind them – both the reality of humble upbringing that characterises the biography of many Argentine players, but also the reality of the clubs. It is well documented that Messi’s club Newell’s Old Boys, and even River Plate who took the 13-year-old on trial, could not afford the $700 monthly hormone treatment that Messi required as a teenager.
To the outsider Argentine football appears to be still stuck in the 1980s. Hair cuts and chants to the tune of Bonnie Tyler ‘It’s a Heartache’ aside, perhaps it is the dilapidated stadia, or the edge and violence on match days, or the very domestic feel, with few foreigners making up the ranks of teams. The use of dieticians or sports psychologists by clubs is still viewed as radically advanced and groundbreaking in many quarters.
There is resignation over the game’s problems. There are few who are seriously challenging the eternal barra brava problem – the ultras who profit from ticket touting and other illegal avenues of income and whose civil wars to control the lucrative business are a weekly source of grim news. In a disingenuous move, Grondona left Argentine football with no away supporters – the reasoning being that violence could not be controlled, ignoring the fact that the violence is internal. And violence continues to plague Argentine football. In December 2014, Franco Nieto, captain of Tiro Federal, was killed after being attacked by hooligans following a match against rivals Chacarita Juniors. The exodus of players also continues, even while the European market has slowed. And in turn the standard of play is generally low.
But faced with this outlook, is the broader issue that Grodona’s death left a vacuum. Among the front-runners to take over were a motley crew of Grondonistas, including the two Grondona sons, government-friendly candidates, government opposition-friendly candidates, or Buenos Aires city mayor-friendly candidates. The chaos over the strike illustrated the power struggle.
Filling the vacuum
Calling the strike was Hugo Moyano, head of the trade union CGT, who is also president of Independiente, one of Argentina’s Big Five, a club now back in the first division after its first ever season in the second division. Moyano had been the darling of the government not so many years ago, but is now one of the most powerful government opponents. In protest at inflation and job cuts he decided to try and bring the country to a standstill for the second time in 2014. Stopping football would have been a victory for him.
Boca Juniors meanwhile said they wouldn’t play their midweek game, before backing down. There was a political undertone here too. Boca Juniors president Daniel Angelici was the candidate for Mauricio Macri, who was a previous Boca president before stepping up from club president to run Buenos Aires. Macri’s campaign for the 2015 national presidential elections is up and running, on an opposition ticket.
Why does the government, and the opposition, care so much about football? Because the Kirchner government is the television rights holder.
Football for all
One of the legacies of Julio Grondona is the TV rights deal. In the 1990s Grondona signed a deal with cable television company Tornos y Competencias that lasted for over a decade. Then he tore up the deal, and signed a new deal called Fútbol Para Todos – Football For All – with the government. There is no more pay per view for Argentines, nor indeed for the rest of the watching world. Because while the deal was part of the Kirchner government’s inclusive cultural and social model to see football as a right for all Argentines, in making it free to air, it also made it free for the entire world, transmitting games live on youtube. So while Argentine football may not be the most attractive to watch at times, and it certainly does not boast big name players, with the exception of former European greats playing out what is left in the late-30s legs, it is nonetheless free. The government switched its advertising budget to pay for the football deal. So in between games is government advertising – propaganda. Even die hard Kirchneristas will privately admit that the updates on how many miles of motorways have been built is tiresome.
The deal came around when players went on strike over unpaid wages in 2009. Argentine clubs are broke. The existing television rights deal was low, but clubs’ main source of income – transfer fees, had tailed off too. And because of how they are set up, Argentine clubs have few other revenues of income.
A model of debt
In Argentina, as a member of your club as well as a free ticket to the club’s league games, you have access to the club’s facilites during the week. For a nominal extra, there is the gym, tennis, swimming or squash. At some clubs there is tango, martial arts, and an array of cultural events. At clubs like River Plate and Vélez Sarsfield in Buenos Aires, or Newell’s Old Boys in Rosario, there is its own school. River Plate has a university. But for all there is on offer, membership to these clubs is less than £15 a month, entrance to two games a month included.
It is an inclusive model, clubs were founded on their social role for the community, and the philosophy is that they are places for the whole family to be signed-up members. But it is a model which incurs debt. River Plate’s debt is over £20m. Compared to Premier League clubs, it is insignificant. But the social model of football in Argentina also means that income is also just as insignificant compared to the Premier League.
While Argentina scrambles to sort its finances, and far beyond the minor nuisance of the eternal chopping and changing of fixtures and kick off times there is the question of what the future holds. Another of Julio Grondona’s legacies is a 30-team league.
Argentina does not do things simply. In 1983, San Lorenzo were relegated. It was the first of the Big Five to drop down a division. In order to prevent this happening again, three-year points averages were introduced. The logic was that these larger institutions were less likely to have three consecutive bad years to send them down. And the extended logic was that big teams going down a division was bad for football.
The theory didn’t quite work out, as Racing Club were relegated, and then many years later River Plate, the club with more league titles than any other in the country, also went down. The irony that the Millionaires went down precisely because of the three year averages – in not one of the three years did they end in the bottom three – is not lost on those at the club who still vilify former directors responsible for the disaster.
Independiente were then also relegated, leaving Boca Juniors as the only side never to have been relegated. All the while, in the 1990s the short-season system came into existence. The logic here was that clubs needed more chances for silverware. Boca and Racing had not won for many years and were the clubs who pushed for this new format. So the system was such that it took six months to be crowned champions, but three years to be relegated.
Not content with the eccentricity of this, a 30-club league was approved shortly before Julio Grondona passed away. There is no real explanation as to why this is necessary. Nor is anyone – from directors down to supporters – able to truly and concisely explain how this new league will operate. But it appears that it is going ahead. This year the league is called the Transition. There are no relegations. Next year 10 teams will come up from the second tier to form the largest top flight in the world.
It is difficult to see how an already congested calendar will do anything other than become completely blocked up. And quite what will happen if there is another national strike, is anyone’s guess.