Is the Screen About to Go Blank for Argentina’s Football Godfather?

With bizarre plans for a new league, Julio Grondona is finally showing his age.

Daniel García / AFP / Getty Images
Daniel García / AFP / Getty Images

BUENOS AIRES—Last week, the Argentine Football Association (AFA) released the fixtures for its top league’s next season, a six-month "transition" tournament before a new, revamped format takes place in 2015. Instead of checking the hottest match-ups, fans rolled their eyes as they were reminded of the craziness that the AFA and its longtime president, 82-year old Julio Grondona, have inflicted on them since 1979. Their only hope is that the new format will be scrapped at the last minute, which has happened before. But this time it could finally signify the first cracks in Grondona’s monolithic power.

In Argentina, his influence goes far beyond football. In a country obsessed about soccer to the point of euphoric mania and occasional violence, Grondona learned to fold businesses and governments alike under his wing. Every reformist government since the return of democracy, in 1983, has at some point declared that Grondona’s shady and obscure tactics were a thing of the past. All of them ended up kowtowing to his demands. Unlike other football associations, which relinquish part or most of the management of their local leagues to a club of clubs (such as the Premier League and Spain’s La Liga), Grondona oversees every business contract and television deal. When occasionally the bigger clubs have tried to wrestle some of that power away from him and negotiate directly with sponsors or media companies, Grondona has always managed to vanquish their efforts. Not a penny has moved in Argentine football since 1979 without being approved by Grondona’s avuncular eye.

Grondona’s new league will feature 30 teams, far more than any other soccer league of reasonable quality, and will consist of a single round of 29 games from March to December, breaking the lockstep with European transfer windows in place since 1986. There will be an extra match day, though, for traditional rivalries: Boca will play twice against River, home and away, and the same will happen between Rosario Central and Newell’s. Teams without a local derby will be provided with one.

Outlandish as this new format may be, it’s nothing new for Grondona. He’s fiddled with the league at least a dozen times in his 35-year tenure. And this time the format was approved unanimously, in March, by the clubs’ presidents, who fear and revere him. No official explanation was given about the benefits of the redesign. According to media reports, the AFA needs cash and has accepted an offer to introduce gambling on soccer scores. The offer was made by Cristóbal López, a businessman with close ties to president Cristina Kirchner who reportedly demanded a more "federal" format. Thus the need to bloat the current 20-team league, where more than half of the clubs are based in or near Buenos Aires. Ten lucky teams from the national second-tier league will be promoted next December.

Is this another ingenious if cynical move by Grondona to consolidate power, or is it a rare out-of-touch mistake that could accelerate his long-anticipated downfall? In the last three decades, Grondona has navigated crisis after crisis with the poise and stubbornness suggested in the inscription on his pinky ring: "Todo Pasa" ("Everything Passes"). The country’s economy suffered three devastating blows since his rise. He’s been accused of corruption repeatedly — even by Diego Maradona, who is worshipped like a god in Argentina – as well as protecting violent barrabravas and shady dealings with governments and media companies. And the local league has often been on the brink of bankruptcy. But nothing has ever fazed him. He has never been popular, but he has always been powerful.

Even at FIFA, where the mixing of politics and football is supposedly eschewed, Grondona is nothing if not political. As a FIFA vice-president since 1988, he voted for Qatar to host the World Cup in 2022, asserting that "voting for the United States would be like voting for Great Britain," whose dominion over the Falklands/Malvinas Islands is disputed by Argentina. With respect to England’s bid for the 2018 World Cup, he was equally unequivocal, telling the organizing committee: "Let’s be brief. If you give back the Malvinas, which don’t belong to you, you’ll have my vote."

This time it could be different, though, because it’s the government that seems to have the upper hand. In 2009, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner bought the league’s television rights from Grupo Clarín, the country’s biggest media conglomerate, and started showing every single game, previously only on cable or pay-per-view, on network free-to-air broadcasts. The government pays the AFA around $100 million per year, more than three times what Clarín used to pay, and it gets nothing in return — nothing monetary, that is. It leases the games for free to a handful of networks and it doesn’t allow any commercial ads during the broadcasts. Half-time breaks are filled with pro-government or anti-opposition spots and a (sometimes pro-Putin or even pro-Assad) flash news report.

With this money, the government has become the main backer of an unprofitable league whose stadiums are often half-full and whose executives serve the dual masters of Grondona and their mafia-like fan clubs. If electronic gambling and Cristobal López become the AFA’s new source of income, then Grondona’s dependence on the government will become even stronger. Plus, age has slowed him down; he’s been ill  doesn’t look as sharp and resourceful as he used to be.

Grondona has done a few good things, especially in his management of the national team. For decades, while other countries switched national coaches whenever results were frustrating, Grondona followed an unwritten rule according to which each coach’s job would be safe until the next World Cup. If the coach managed to win the World Cup, like César Menotti in 1978 and Carlos Bilardo in 1986, he’d get renewed for another cycle. If he didn’t, he’d step down. At the same time, he built top-notch training facilities near Buenos Aires and created a system for youth development led by José Pekerman (Argentina’s coach in 2006 and now Colombia’s coach) that became world famous and led to five U-20 World Championships between 1995 and 2007.

But all of this seems to be crumbling, too. Grondona fired his first coach in 2008 (Alfio Basile) and then fired two more in 2010 (Diego Maradona) and 2011 (Sergio Batista). After the departure of Pekerman and his team, Argentina failed to qualify for the last U-20 World Cup.

The latest blow to Grondona’s credibility is the new league format, so bizarre and unnecessary tha
t it has left football aficionados scratching their heads. Unless it’s some kind of masterful, Soprano-esque scheme to fail deliberately and snatch control back from the government and its partners (which, coming from Grondona, it very well might be), his recent moves suggest that he might have lost some of his magic touch.

Not long ago, he pledged he would not seek reelection for a tenth term next year. If he keeps his promise, it would be true that "todo pasa" — even Grondona.

Hernán Iglesias Illa is a freelance writer in Buenos Aires and the author of books about Wall Street, Miami, and Domingo Sarmiento’s 1847 trip around the United States. He’s a River Plate and Arsenal fan who accepts only the label "bielsista". Follow him on Twitter: @HernaniiBA