By Matt Hawkins –
Argentinian football returned last weekend. Once again there are big changes. The first and second divisions will be playing a truncated “transition” tournament in the lead up to the centennial version of the Copa America hosted in the US. Recently announced changes to the Fútbol Para Todos, the public broadcasting agreement of football matches in Argentina, means several matches will be broadcast over private channels for the first time since 2009.
Last year, the top-tier Primera División grew to 30 teams. Under that format, initiated by the late President of AFA, Julio Grondona, clubs played each other once plus an extra match between clasico club rivals. Boca Juniors won the championship, three points ahead of San Lorenzo, in a championship widely panned by fans for the disparity between the top and bottom.
A New Year A New League Format
The current short tournament features thirty teams split into two groups of 15. Each club will play 14 matches in their group and two against their clásico rivals from the other group. The title will be decided by a single-match final between the leaders of each group at a neutral stadium.
Following the Copa America, Argentina’s Primera División will return to the 30 team format that plays from August to May in line with the European transfer calendar. What will happen after the 2016-17 tournament, and if AFA begins to reduce the size of the league, is not yet known.
In large part, the uncertainty is the result of the Argentinian football governing body’s protracted instability. Last December 3, 59 voting representatives arrived at AFA headquarters in Ezeiza to vote for the new President. Significant forces aligned behind each candidate: Marcelo Tinelli, an influencial television presenter, was backed by Vice-President San Lorenzo. Luis Segura, a long-standing ally of Julio Grodona was backed by the President of Argentinos Juniors. The vote was split 30-30.
By the time the votes were counted, two presidents (from Excursionista and Crucero del Norte) had already left Ezeiza. A re-vote was impossible and efforts to construct a unity-list were rejected. Shortly thereafter, images of the vandalized house of Excursionista president Ángel Lozano circulated through the media. Messages like “Angel Traitor Thief” were painted by members of his club’s barra brava (presumed to be allies of clubs that backed Segura).
Segura is widely seen as the succession candidate of Grondona, who ruled Argentinian football for 35 years. He has close allies in CA Independiente and that club’s President Hugo Moyano, leader of the largest union in Argentina. Marcelo Tinelli, on the other hand, is seen as a relative outsider, though well connected because of his media company Ideas del Sur.
In the wake of the voting scandal, a “transition government” has been formed until elections are held once again. San Lorenzo President, Matías Lammens, became treasurer and River Plate President, Rodolfo D’Onofrio, another Tinelli ally, joined the executive committee. President Luis Segura continues in his interim position backed by Víctor Blanco (Racing Club President). Daniel Angelici (Boca Juniors President), who has up to this point backed Segura, became Secretary General. Angelici, however, is rumoured to be testing the waters for his own bid to become AFA President.
AFA’s Political Scandal Reflects Politics in Argentina
AFA’s political turmoil has followed the change in Argentina’s Presidency. A new relationship between the government and football is taking shape, as are wide spread political-economic reforms. Newly elected Argentinian President Mauricio Macri, former mayor of Buenos Aires and President of Boca Juniors, has begun a program of public austerity including the layoffs of tens of thousands of public employees.
Fútbol Para Todos (FPT), or Football For Everyone, was a symbolic part of the previous President Cristina Kirchner government. FPT was created in 2009. It replaced the cable-only Torneos y Competencias owned by Grupo Clarín (who also owns El Trece and several newspapers). Many Argentinians who could not afford TyC were unable to watch matches. Goal highlights from all the matches were only released on Sunday night, a widely despised situation. The Kirchner government promoted FPT as part of a broader politics of re-nationalizing public corporations.
Under the FPT agreement, the state broadcaster took over the broadcast rights of the first and second divisions, provided free broadcasting of every match. In 2015, the FPT cost the government 1.44 billion pesos in rights and broadcasting costs. In late January it was announced that FPT, now under the direction of Marci’s ally Fernando Marín, would license the matches of Boca Juniors, River Plate, CA Independiente and Racing Club to two private channels: El Trece and Telefe. The pair was to pay a combined 160 million pesos for the exclusive rights of the most popular matches in Argentina.
Concern rapidly spread that many who were without cable packages would lose access to the matches, as the private channels do not provide extensive over-the-air coverage in the interior of the country. In a new agreement, which includes América alongside El Trece and Telefe, each will pay 35 million pesos to broadcast every match of the “big five” clubs including San Lorenzo each week. The government also has withdrawn from the second division, which has now returned to TyC.
Since 2009 FPT Has Provided Financial Stability to AFA
Since 2009, FPT has provided financial stability to AFA and the clubs. Under Grondona, AFA used FPT money to underwrite loans to member clubs. Recently, Lammens in his position as treasurer announced that AFA plans to claw back payments from FPT to indebted clubs in order to encourage greater financial accountability. A buyer for the international television rights for the first division is also being sought.
Improved sponsorship contracts is another avenue that Lammens is pursuing. It is expected that FPT will also increase the number of privately paid commercials. During broadcasts, under the Kirchner government, FPT was sponsored by Iveco, a national truck manufacturer and featured only government commercials – which often outlined how to access new programs. Opposition politicians decried the spots as ‘propaganda’. On the other hand, FPT was almost unique in the world for providing high quality broadcasts without the typical overwhelming bombardment of corporate commercials.
A long-term change to FPT is expected to happen in August. For the remainder of the first division, the matches will be broadcast by TV Publica with the government paying a total of 881 million pesos for the transition tournament. Figuring out a financial solution without government support will be a major task for the next AFA president and could dramatically change how Argentinians connect with their national passion.
Matt Hawkins is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology at Carleton University, Ottawa. His research covers the intersections of football and politics in Argentina. His dissertation focuses on the Return to Boedo campaign by supporters of Club Atlético San Lorenzo de Almagro. He writes infrequently on supporter culture for stonymondayriot.com and can be followed on Twitter @mhawkin2