KEIR RADNEDGE in BUENOS AIRES: Football is back in Argentina — after an 89-day league freeze mired in wrangling between the normalisation committee, the big clubs, the small clubs and the players.
World governing body FIFA and South American confederation imposed the normalisation committee on the Argentinian game in June after the AFA leadership imploded.
The causes were many, including a delayed fall-out from the death AFA ‘caudillo’ Julio Grondona two years ago, partly through commercial and individual repercussions from the United States’ FIFAGate corruption case and partly through the refusal of still new-ish state President Mauricio Macri to write the same blank TV rights cheques as predecessor Cristina Kirchner.
Macri, a former president of Boca Juniors and then Mayor of Buenos Aires, reasoned that the strategy of bread and circuses had long since passed its voter-influencing sell-by date.
The big clubs, Boca and River Plate and a handful of others, had complicated matters earlier this year by talking of a Premier-style ‘super league’. Yet this was never about radical structural change, merely a change of name. Smoke and mirrors.
In any case, the AFA was incapable of deciding on a new president, let alone resolving the mess left by Grondona’s overblown 30-club championship.
Indeed, so daunting were the issues that FIFA and CONMEBOL could not even come up with eight independent individuals willing to serve on the comision normalizadora and had to settle for four.
Commission supremo Armando Perez, the Belgrano president, held the key role this past week of trying to negotiate a multi-sided compromise so that league football could restart and the cash could start rolling in again.
The rush to play again had also been delayed while the Olympic squad, made up largely of home-based players, went to Rio for the Games. Their first-round exit provoked further growls of disapproval among the lower division (Ascenso) clubs because that Olympic hiatus had needlessly delayed the competitive resumption.
Perez bobbed between talks with the Primera clubs and directors from the Ascenso trying to devise a cash share-out formula which would satisfy everybody. Easier said that done. Two Ascenso club directors even came to blows.
As Boca’s recent sports director Juan Simon noted: “Some directors understand football. Too many understand next to nothing.” River Plate coach Marcello Gallardo was equally gloomy, saying: “Every time we think we’ve reached the bottom of the abyss something worse happens.”
Separately the Primera club captains, led by Boca’s Carlos Tevez, organised their own summit to insist on guarantees being put in place to make up the wages of Ascenso players. As one captain said: “We want to do everything possible to help our fellow players who haven’t been paid but we’re not interested in helping the directors who got us into this.”
Eventually Perez hammered out an agreement by which the 3,000-plus lower league clubs will reached monthly handouts ranging from £75,000 in B Nacional down to £4,000 in Primera D. Not that this satisfied many. Perez said: “I have the distinct impression many of them want me out but I have a job to do and I will see it through.”
Hence last Friday, 89 days after Lanus won 4-0 at San Lorenzo to clinch the Transicion championship, Primera competition returned. Sarmiento beat Arsenal 1-0 in Junin, Godoy Cruz defeated Huracan by the same margin in Mendoza. The honour of the scoring the first goal fell to Sarmiento’s Leandro Cruz from a penalty after 11 minutes in the Estadio Eva Peron.
A full programme followed over the weekend, several games being played in the teeth of the storms which assailed Buenos Aires so desperate were the clubs to reopen the gates and stage matches. Hence the first matchday was wrapped up last night with Lanus beating Boca Juniors 1-0 and Aldosivi losing 2-0 at home in Mar del Plata to Colon.
Claudio Perkusic, president of Sarmiento, agreed. He said: “These have been very difficult months. We have 10,000 members and half stopped paying. We made almost nothing from the sale of merchandising and we had to shut all our three restaurants and cafes.”
Burger bar operators, parking stewards, security staff and stadium announcers all joined in complaining at three months’ loss of income, underlining how financial chaos is not a matter only of unpaid wages for players but reverberates on down the football food chain, literally.
The media was relieved too. The South American club competitions and the gap-filling Copa Argentina had kept the sports pages ticking along, together with Argentina’s half-envious but generally positive coverage of the Olympics up in Rio.
With no league football the front pages had been forced to fall back on the political jousting concerning Macri’s Panama Papers appearance on the one side and Kirchner’s opaque property network on the other.
Perez has achieved his initial tasks. A squad was cobbled together to go the Olympics under youth coch Julio Olarticoechea; a new senior national coach was appointed in Edgardo Bauza just in time for this week’s World Cup qualifiers at home to Uruguay and away to Venezuela; and league football is back up and running.
Next challenge is organising elections to pick a new AFA president to replace FIFAGate-shamed Luis Segura. The job is no sinecure. Technically the AFA is bankrupt because it stands as guarantor for the millions of debts of the clubs.
The original concept of the Futbol Para Todos programme set up by Grondona and the Kirchner government was that the government would pay a TV rights market rate and the cash would be used to pay off the clubs’ debts. In fact, the clubs took the cash, squandered it somehow and somewhere and fell further still behind with wages, social security payments, tax etc.
Hence they must continue to sell their best (and not only their best) players which holds down the quality of the domestic game and continues to fuel resentment on the already trouble-torn terraces.
At least now that football is back, normal service – such as it ever is – has been restored. Also the vicious circle.