If you are interested in Argentinian football, you have to realize one thing–it is a dictatorship, utterly, incontrovertibly controlled by one person: Julio Humberto Grondona. Like all proper dictators, he is corrupt as hell, and an anti-Semite to boot. And he really hates the English, lord does he hate the English. Have I mentioned that this man is a FIFA Vice President? That would normally tell you all you need to know about FIFA, but let’s face it, in the annals of FIFA, a corrupt anti-Semitic dictator merits but a footnote.
Don Julio has seen it all, and more importantly lived through it all. Dictatorship, democracy, liberal, conservative, it makes no difference to Don Julio. He controls his personal fiefdom with an iron grip, and doesn’t care what anyone thinks. Don Julio is like the Pope, only Argentinians actually care about what Don Julio does. He is as close to all-powerful as one gets in sports administration.
Or so we thought. Two announcements came today in Argentina that show that perhaps Don Julio is bending a little to popular will. The first, and sadly less surprising of the two announcements, is that Argentina will completely restructure its league so that all teams in the top two divisions will now comprise one much larger first division of 38 teams. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of the current first division sides agreed to this change, no doubt afraid that of what would happen if they go down.
Coincidentally, River Plate is biggest beneficiary of this new rule. Had the old format been maintained, River would have played in the second division for the first time ever. Now River is back up without ever having gone back down. What fortuitous timing!
No one is pretending this was not done to protect River. This isn’t the first time that the system was changed to protect River from relegation. Even the Argentine Football Association admits that this was done to prevent River from going down. Which leads to a second thing you should know about Argentinian football: it is utterly dominated by clubs from Buenos Aires. There is a big five from Buenos Aires, River, Boca Juniors, Racing, San Lorenzo, and Independiente, but the only two that really matter are River and Boca. The matches between those two are among the most intense and storied in the world. Despite the fact that both clubs have fallen onto hard times of late, the eyes of the world still turn to Argentina whenever those two legendary clubs play each other. Even though under this new system they will be in separate divisions, River and Boca will still play one another. So sayeth Don Julio.
Despite all the lip service about decentralizing Argentinian football so that other cities could develop (La Plata does not count), the Buenos Aires clubs, especially River and Boca must be protected at all cost. Otherwise, the revenue would fall. No club from Córdoba, Mendoza, San Juan or even Rosario can compete with the Buenos Aires clubs in terms of popularity and revenue.
Frankly, I’m surprised this change didn’t happen sooner. It looked like it wasn’t going to happen at all. I wonder if part of the reason why River is being protected now instead of earlier is because the Copa America was such a bust for Argentina. The attendances looked fairly anemic, particularly in the northern cities (especially after Argentina were eliminated), and because the national team is in such disarray, Don Julio is being forced to go back to what works, a strong Buenos Aires rather than a decentralized football nation. River fans were really pissed off when their club was relegated, and the Argentinian league needs their bodies in the stands and their money. Without River, the first division would suffer. If they stayed away entirely, there would be real problems.
On the other hand, so long as the Buenos Aires clubs are being protected, there is no need for them to reform, which is a shame because they desperately need reform. Argentinians clubs, especially the big Buenos Aires clubs, are toxic; none more so than River, which suffered from years of rot. Changing the league when the biggest teams were threatened with relegation used to happen in Brazil all the time (Brazil has its own fair share of corrupt and mismanaged clubs), but surprisingly, it has stopped. Corinthians, Brazil’s second largest club went down a couple of years ago, and it came back up the next year. It’s actually a better club now than it used to be; it even challenges for titles.
As long as Don Julio is in charge however, reform will never happen in Argentina.
The more surprising of the two announcements to come out of Argentina today is that national team coach Sergio Batista was sacked. Although the federation claims that “he wasn’t fired,” I’m not exactly sure what else you could call it. If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck….
In any other country, this would have been called firing your coach. It can’t be called that in Argentina though because Don Julio prides himself on never having fired a coach. In fact, this is the first time I recall Argentina actually firing a coach. Argentina doesn’t renew contracts, but firing? Never. I cannot wait to hear Tim Vickery’s take on this because it goes against everything we know about Argentina. I sense that these two announcements coming near the same time are connected, and I also suspect that Don Julio is facing real resistance from the public for the first time in a long time, and needed to do something to shore up support. Hence fire Batista and ensure River Plate stays in the first division.
Argentinian football is in real trouble. I touched on the clubs (although there is far more to say about them), but the national side, Argentina’s pride and joy, has not won a senior title since 1993. Not only has Brazil passed them by, but now their other continental arch-enemy Uruguay has too. On top of that, as evidenced by this year’s Copa American, the rest of the continent has finally caught up to the big boys. Don Julio can no longer let in former players without tactical acuity take on a team that has World Cup championship ambitions. The Argentinian public, which has been fairly docile toward him, will rise up, and it will not be pretty.
Batista is definitely to blame for his own misfortune, but not completely. He was able to coach Argentina to the Olympic gold medal for what it’s worth, which is not much actually. Batista’s mistake was in trying to replicate Barcelona, and he used a system ill-suited to his team far longer than he should have. One could rightly say that the Copa America exposed him as a poor coach, but he was undermined from the beginning of the Copa America campaign. He did not want Carlos Tevez. Tevez did not fit into his plans, and he didn’t like Tevez on a personal level. But unlike Messi, the Argentinian people love Tevez because, having grown up in the slums, they see him as one of them. In contrast, when they are angry at Messi, he is a Catalan. They demanded the inclusion of Tevez, and when Batista yielded (no doubt with some Don Julio persuasion), that was the beginning of the end. Ironically, it was Tevez who cost Argentina, both with his horrible play and his missed penalty kick.
No doubt Maradona is anxiously awaiting a call from Don Julio that will never come. Despite the chants for him to return, the Argentinians are crying out for a real coach, one with actual ability. Maradona and Batista, two former players with little to no prior experience just couldn’t cut it. Why Don Julio picked them is no great mystery. Batista was his man from the word “go”, and making Maradona coach was the only way to defang his criticisms. In the end choosing the coach was all about Don Julio.
But perhaps now too many things have gone wrong, and Don Julio’s reign is shakier than it was a month ago, or ever. Perhaps now he will have to give up some of his power, bite the bullet, and appoint a real coach. A poor result at one more World Cup, and perhaps the Argentinian public will finally rise up and end Don Julio’s reign.