By Thomas Farines –
A new season means a new league format for the Argentinian Primera Division. The man who set in motion this year’s change was Julio Grondona, who was the almighty godfather of Argentinian and South American football until his death in July 2014. Don Julio’s reign in Argentina lasted 35 years, during which he also acted as one of FIFA’s vice-Presidents for 26 years.
At one point Grondona was even the favourite to succeed João Havelange as the head of FIFA. Grondona was involved in several scandals over the years: he was accused of corruption, anti-Semitism, and was also a major player in letting the barra-brava take control of Argentinian football.
Grondona: The Player
A former River Plate player, Grondona founded a football club with his brother and friends in his home town of Sarandi named Arsenal de Sarandi, which is now famous for being coached by former Argentinian star Martin Palermo. The club has been less than successful however, having only won one title since being founded 60 years ago.
Grondona left Arsenal in 1976 to become the president of Libertadores record winner Independiente. Being president of this prominent team would help him in his bid to take over the presidency of the Argentinian Football Association (AFA) in 1979.
The Argentinian journalist, Ezequiel Fernandez Moores explained in his presentation at the 2005 Play the Game Conference that took place in Copenhagen, that Grondona was able to expand his influence not only in football directly, but also off the pitch by establishing strong business ties with media corporations, construction companies and gas stations. Many of Moores’ claims were supported by a 1998 report published in the Argentinian paper Noticias which led to an investigation about the source of his wealth. Grondona also didn’t shy away from using FIFA project money for his own political benefit, for example by constructing a football pitch in Sarandi – the location of the club that he founded.
Grondona: Argentina’s little João
In many ways Grondona was the Argentinian version of João Havelange, the former president of the Brazilian Federation and FIFA. Both had almighty and long rules over footballing associations, and both transformed football into a highly valuable business commodity, which they were then able to use to grow their own wealth. Grondona attracted big companies to sponsor the AFA, such as Coca-Cola and MasterCard, expanding his wealth with every sponsorship agreement.
In 1982 Grondona helped create the Company Torneo y Competencias (TyC), which became the most widely available TV stations in the Americas. The connection between TyC and Grondona was investigated in 2000 due to allegations that he had received 80 thousand dollars from a TyR worker without receipt. This raised suspicion due to the lack of bidding for the TV rights, which suggests that Grondona received money in order to influence the bidding process over television rights. In 2009, the partnership between the Clarin Group (TyC owner) and the Federation regarding the Argentinian Football TV rights ended and Grondona decided to accept a more financially interesting offer from the Government for the TV rights.
Continuous changes to the Argentinian National League
Until the 1960s, the league was highly dominated by the big five – Boca Juniors, Indepediente, River Plate, Racing and San Lorenzo. Apart from the impressive rule of teams from Buenos Aires over Argentinian football, the country stood out due to its peculiar league changes. In 1991 the FA introduced a major change; the Argentinian first division was divided in two single round competitions, Apertura (opening) and Clausura (closing).
Grondona believed that this would attract a larger audience to the stadiums and therefore be of greater interest to sponsors for the federation and its competitions. Six years before the introduction of the two tournaments, Grondona created the promedio relegation system. This scheme was set up to protect the big clubs from relegation to the second tier. Despite this safeguard, River Plate, one of the greatest teams in Argentinian football was relegated to the second division in 2011. In 2012 the league once again saw reforms while it remained league split into two stages: Inicial and Final, the two winners of each tournament would now play each other in a final to decide the overall championship.
Grondona had a plan – to increase the first division to 38 teams. Both supporters and the media opposed this move however, and the initial plan was scrapped. This idea would eventually lead the way to today’s Argentinian First Division League, which started the 2015 season with 30 teams. The control by Grondona and his allies, which included the Argentinian Government over Argentinian football, was facilitated by the omnipresence of the federation in issues such as the signing of broadcasting contracts, the choice of the national team manager, and the development of the competition format.
The Grondona: Argentina’s Major League
Finally, in April 2014, AFA voted for 10 new teams to participate in the new league format. The league would take place between February and December, with the clubs guaranteed to play each other once, with a second game guaranteed against one rival team, the Clasicos. This was Don Julio’s last project as he passed away before his intended retirement from the presidency in October 2015.
Argentinian clubs and South American clubs in general, also have had major issues with debts, which has forced them to sell their best players to Europe. To address this, in addition to the league reform Grondona proposed to set up a betting system similar to those in England and Spain. The betting system together with the extra home-games that were introduced as part of the new league structure were supposed to generate sufficient funds for Argentinian clubs to keep their young players longer at their clubs.
The powerful Catholic Church, however, stood against Grondona’s project. Their concern was the misuse of betting money and the fear of sporting scandals such as match fixing. The influence of the church meant that the federation had to back down on the betting system but continued with the expansion of the league regardless. Increasing the league to 30 teams finally became a reality.
Increasing the number of teams in the first division was a decision from the Argentinian FA (and national government) in order to increase the participation by teams not from the capital in order to create a much-needed federalisation of the sport. Today only 20 of the 50 votes in the AFA are allocated to clubs, making them the minority in the AFA assembly.
By increasing the proportion of club in the first division the league was now awarded 30 instead of 20 votes, which could help the election of Don Julio’s successor as the head of the federation in October 2015. This suggests that the new league format was part of a larger scheme by Grondona to secure his political legacy.
Several actors involved in Argentinian Primera Division, such as the government and the federation, changed the league format due to economics, stadium security and political reasons. When the league changes were first proposed, the idea carried a lot of support from the aforementioned actors. The death of Grondona, however, in July 2014 made some politicians and presidents of clubs change their opinion, and voices were raised against the creation of the league with 30 teams. Nevertheless, even after his death, the godfather of Argentinian football managed to fulfil his wish – a behemoth league with 30 teams, which started in February 2015.
Thomas is an MA Student of Middle Eastern Politics at King’s College London and a member of the London based charity, Football Beyond Borders. His MA research is on the relationship between football and politics in Beirut. @thomasfarines