By Matt Hawkins –
El arbitro comprado. The bought referee is a well-known protagonist in the drama of Argentina’s football stadiums. Everyone knows he exists. A loss is often called arreglado (arranged) by fans, and whispers by journalists and club representatives of irregularities permeate the stories of controversial matches. The partiality of referees is a universal assumption; almost as omnipresent as the known corruption within the Asociación de Fútbol Argentino (AFA).
So it came as no surprise to the Argentine public when a taped conversation between the late President of AFA Julio Grondona and Abel Gnecco, the Argentine representative to CONMEBOL, surfaced which suggested that Paraguayan referee Carlos Amarilla was intentionally selected for a Copa Libertadores quarterfinals match between Boca Juniors, Argentina’s most popular team, and São Paulo’s Corinthians in 2013. Grondona is heard saying, “It worked out well in the end. No one wanted the crazy bastard but the best reinforcement that played for Boca this year was Amarilla.”
The controversial second-leg match ended 1-1; Corinthians supporters allege that Amarilla missed two penalties and disallowed two goals allowing Boca to advance on with 2-1 aggregate. The recording also indicates that Grondona influenced the referee selection for Boca’s following Copa matches against Newell’s Old Boys.
Don Julio’s Tapes
The conversation, one of many recordings released, exposes how the man at the top of AFA operated. It also makes clear that power in football, in large part, is about influencing and crafting its stories.
Don Julio was one of football’s most enduring and powerful personalities. After rising to the presidency of the AFA in 1979, Grondona remained in the office untill his death last July. It is remarkable that Grondona survived through all of Argentina’s tumultuous political shifts over the past 35 years; this feat is even more impressive given Argentina’s sporadic success in international football since 1986. Grondona also served as vice-president of FIFA and as president of the Finance Committee and Office of Marketing and Television.
Unloved by most club supporters in Argentina, Grondona held onto power through a system of patronage that made allies of club presidents and kept his opposition fighting over the financial scraps. He also engineered major changes of Argentina’s professional football pyramid: the promedios, the three year total points-per-match average that prevented the relegation of the powerful clubs Independiente, River Plate, and Boca Juniors in the 1980s; the split season which provides more trophies to smaller clubs; and the new 30-team Primera División that includes more teams from the country’s interior.
Grondona was consistently preoccupied with the narratives produced through football. In another recording in 2013, he is overheard suggesting to Gustavo Ceresa, then president of the Consejo Federal de Fútbol, that Estudiantes de San Luis, at the time playing in the fourth division Torneo Federal B, was “the only team I want, that I’m concerned about.” Olé, in their investigation of the recordings, found that several crucial matches for Estudiantes (SL) received favourable and questionable referee selections, including only two different referees in the final eight matches that decided the promotion of the club.
The above revelations come on the heels of the FIFA corruption arrests in May. Three Argentines, Alejandro Burzaco, and Hugo and Mariano Jinkis, were implicated in the FBI investigation and are now awaiting extradition to the United States. Burzaco was, until recently, the president of Torneos y Competencias SA (Torneos), a media company that owns the television rights to matches in several international tournaments and the Argentine national team, and produces programing for partners Fox Sports Latinoamérica.
Don Julio A Smooth Political Operator
In the 1992 Torneos y Competencias became a major player in Argentine football. TyC partnered with Argentine media conglomerate Grupo Clarín to purchase the exclusive television rights for Argentina’s Primera División from AFA. Matches of the top flight were only available on the channel TyC Sports and as part of expensive cable packages provided by Cablevisión, a subsidiary of Grupo Clarín. Infamously, fans without the cable package had to wait until Sunday night to watch Fútbol de Primera to see the weekend’s goals.
Grupo Clarín also owns the country’s most widely available newspaper, popular television channel, and the weekday football tabloid Olé. This vertical integration produced a near monopoly and is a model that now has many contemporary parallels in the sports world.
The system ultimately, however, came undone in 2009. Unsustainable club debts, the economic crises in Argentina and around the world, and a political spat between the national government and Grupo Clarín converged in the creation of Fútbol Para Todos. Part of President Cristina Kirchner’s wider-narrative of public ownership of public goods, the government bought the rights to broadcast all the matches of the Primera División free over the air, literally to give football to everyone. Grondona, ever the chameleon, went along with the plan; public money provided the necessary economic security for AFA and its clubs.
Torneos, however, had already been innovative, with the help of Don Julio. TyC had secured the international television rights of several properties: the 2006 World Cup, Copa Libertadores and Copa Sudamericana. Enter the Jinkins, a father and son duo. They owned the media company Full Play, and are accused by the FBI of paying millions in bribes, along with Torneos and the Brazilian-owned Traffic, to secure the rights and marketing contract for CONCACAF tournaments, several national teams in South America, and the 2015, 2019, and 2023 editions of the Copa América.
These events are connected through hidden deals within the football empire and the manipulation of football’s narrative. Football is experienced through its on-the-field events. Making good stories ensures a larger audience and makes football more attractive to sponsors. Due to the machinations of the backroom “godfathers” like Don Julio and Blatter, football’s televised rights have become extremely valuable. Argentina’s part in the FIFA scandal, as well as the fallout subsequent to Grondona’s death, has exposed what was already well known but not well supported in hard evidence about how football’s stories are made and sold.
The Recordings scandal shows that Grondona was a skilled operator in a system of patronage and corruption who used his ability to craft popular football narratives in order to leverage money, which he distributed through AFA in order to maintain his position. Companies like TyC, Traffic and Full Play were middlemen who skimmed money off the top and paid bribes to secure control of the football stories that are so valuable to large media companies and their sponsors.
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.