KEIR RADNEDGE COMMENTARY —- With Wednesday’s death, at 82, of Julio Humberto Grondona, FIFA has lost its senior vice-president and finance chairman, Argentina has lost its long-serving football federation president . . . and the world federation has lost its most resistant opponent of reform.
‘Don Julio’ was not nicknamed the ‘Godfather’ without reason. For example, he remained in power in Argentina while 15 state presidents came and went. More than 100 cars formed the procession for his funeral on Friday at which mourners included FIFA president Sepp Blatter and Argentina captain Leo Messi.
Grondona had headed the Argentinian game – both the football and commercial sectors – for the past 35 years until his death in the Mitre hospital after being admitted for emergency heart surgery. As he had once said: “They will only carry me out of the AFA feet first.”
He was a man and an administrator of his era, having come to power under the military dictatorship. Parliamentary democracy may have returned to Argentina but Grondona’s leadership style and attitudes remained rooted in the autocratic era which empowered him.
He had no time for critics, rivals (of whom there were fewer and fewer down the years), journalists or even his own country’s succession of political leaders; as entrenched president of the AFA he had no need to care for such people.
Yet for all the criticism which rained in on Grondona and his dictatorial style it must also be said that he was never caught – as were Brazilians Joao Havelange and Ricardo Teixeira, for example – with his fingers in the world football till.
Also, no accusations of corruption ever threatened him as they did the likes of Jack Warner and Mohamed bin Hammam.
Grondona was there before them and he remained in place and immovable long after they had all departed in disgrace.
However, even Grondona had signalled that his formal control of the levers of power was coming to an end.
He was re-elected in January last year as AFA president but, having lost his wife as well as younger brother and close aide Hector in the previous 12 months, had announced an intention to retire in 2015.
Grondona was born in Avellaneda, Buenos Aires, on September 18, 1931. In 1956 he was a founder member of the Arsenal club of Sarandi which served as his initial power base as its president from 1957 to 1976. He was then president for three years of world and South American champions Independiente.
In 1979 Grondona was handpicked to head the AFA by Carlos Lacoste, the army strongman who had headed the organisation in 1978 of the World Cup finals which Argentina had won. He became a member of the FIFA executive committee in 1988.
Under Grondona’s leadership Argentina won the World Cup in 1986, finished runners-up twice – most recently earlier this month in Brazil – five world youth cups and Olympic Games gold in both 2004 and 2008.
Not that his opponents did not try to uncover the secret of his wealth. Grondona ascribed it all to his development of the family hardware (ironmongery) business but an investigation in 2011 led by Judge Claudio Bonadio led to claims of millions of dollars stashed in bank accounts in Argentina, Spain, Switzerland and the United States. Access to them was apparently vested in Grondona, his son Hunberto, his wife and brother and aide Hector (both last two pre-deceased him).
By coincidence one of the Swiss banks named was Vontobel which came to public attention during the tax evasion trial in Germany earlier this year of former Bayern Munich president Uli Hoeness (who has himself just undergone heart surgery).
Nothing came of the investigation. As Grondona also once said: “I have accused of more crimes than Al Capone but no-one ever proved anything.”
Julio Segura, senior vice-president of the AFA and chairman of Argentinos Juniors, has taken over as acting president . . . on the day Alejandro Sabella also quit the AFA, though in his case only be resigning as expected as national team coach following the runners-up finish at the World Cup.
Grondona, as finance chairman of FIFA, was happy with the revenue results which accrued from the politically controversial decision to run bidding for the 2018 and 2022 World Cup simultaneously.
He was no friend of British football for reasons deriving from both his close ties to the military junta of the 1970s and the early 1980s and the outcome of the reckless Falkands/Malvinas ‘adventure.’ Probably the only feature of the FIFA reform process of which he approved was the removal of the British vice-presidency.
Reform leader Mark Pieth made little secret of the obstructive behaviour of the Spanish-language clique within the exco where Grondona formed a formidable liaison with Spanish federation president Angel Maria Villar.
This led, early this year, to a failed attempt within the exco to scrap the ethics investigation into the 2018/2022 World Cup bids.
Sayings of Julio Grondona:
“The reason I am still president is because I am the lesser evil.”
“I would never occupy political office. They wanted me once to be Mayor of Avellaneda but I don’t like doing what I don’t know.”
“As vice-president of FIFA, I have more power than any politician in Argentina.”
“The less you talk, the fewer problems you have. Today everything you say is disto
“They will only take me from the AFA feet first.”
“Its not that I have power: other people believe I have power – and that’s what counts…”
“Todo pasa” (on his signet ring).
What others said:
FIFA president Sepp Blatter: “I feel a great personal sense of loss, because he was a lifelong friend. But it is also a huge blow for FIFA as an organisation, as he was one of its key figures. On behalf of FIFA, I would like to extend our sincere condolences to Julio’s family.”
Mauricio Macri, Buenos Aires and former president of Boca Juniors: “There will only ever be one Grondona. He was the most important director in the history of Argentine football.”
Veteran international Juan Roman Riquelme: “Julio always behaved great with us, he was a simple type, a man of the barrio. All he cared for apart from his family was football.”
Luis Segura, acting AFA president: “He came back very tired from the World Cup, it made him very tense. He had big hopes of achieving the championship.”