If clubs need hand-outs from the FA, then they're not going to ask too many questions of the man in charge – even when he lines up his son as his eventual successor, as Rodrigo Orihuela explains

The transfers of Carlos Tévez and Javier Mascherano opened Argentine eyes to Russian corporate involvement in football, but the background to the September 3 friendly between Argentina and Brazil in London was still a surprise to the average local fan. The game was the first arranged through a contract, signed in April, between the Argentine FA and Renova, a Russian corporation that calls itself “the leading Russian asset management company”. Viktor Vekselberg, Russia’s third richest man, is chairman of Renova.

The $18 million (£9.6m) contract for 24 games between 2006 and 2011 was unanimously approved by the Argentine FA board, as are all initiatives that come from Julio Grondona, the FA’s president since 1979 and a senior vice-president of FIFA. This time, however, a Grondona deal faced concerted opposition, from Raúl Gámez, a former chairman and current board member at the Buenos Aires club Vélez Sarsfield.

Gámez is nicknamed Pistola (gun), a name he picked up several decades ago as a young leader of Vélez’s barra brava (ie hooligans). In the 1990s, Gámez puts his old ways behind him and became one of Argentina’s most respected club officials. Under his auspices, Vélez won four domestic titles and various international trophies including the 1994 Copa Libertadores – all while keeping their finances in the black, something only three or four Argentine clubs have managed.

Now Gámez wants to become the first club official since 1979 to contest the presidency. Only ex-referee Teodoro Nitti, in 1991, dared to run against the almighty Grondona and he attracted just one vote. But if Gámez’s campaign against the Renova contract is to serve as a forecast of what awaits in next year’s election, Pistola is in for a landslide defeat. Gámez concedes that even he voted to approve the contract he has since criticised. Before voting, however, Gámez did say that the AFA has not received nearly enough for a five-year deal, since it represents only $750,000 per match when Argentina made up to $1.3m from some pre-World Cup games. Gámez also said that Vélez colleagues specifically asked him to back the contract because the club needed the money.

That argument underlines a clear fact about 75-year-old Grondona’s 26-year autocratic presidency: Argentine clubs are regularly in debt and desperate for FA funds. The latest example is River Plate, one of Argentina’s two most popular clubs and widely seen as having the best youth academy. Ariel Ortega, Hernán Crespo, Pablo Aimar, Andrés D’Alessandro and Javier Saviola are just a few of the players who came out of their youth teams to be sold on at a large profit. Even so, River have still managed to accumulate a $30m debt. In an effort to cancel the debt, River’s board decided in July to sell parts of the rights of 16 players (most of whom have not even played professionally) to private agents for $3.5m. The agents will be able to sell the players and keep all the profits. Argentine press reports say that Israeli “super-agent” Pini Zahavi is behind the arrangement.

Like the outsourcing of the rights to organise the matches of the national team, this sale of players’ rights has promoted speculation about under-the-table payments to club and FA officials. Víctor Hugo Morales, one of the most famous journalists in Argentina and one of the strongest critics of Grondona, wrote recently that Italians could learn a lot from Argentines about how to avoid investigations into match fixing. Such scandals would never happen here, said Morales, because our murky business is covered up much more effectively. Morales supports Gámez in his attempt to oust Grondona.

Before running for office in 2007, Gámez first wants to replace the current voting system by which the president is elected by the FA’s executive committee in an open election and not through secret balloting. Grondona may have other ideas. He plans to seek re-election for four more years and then he has another candidate he wants to see take his seat: his son. Julio Junior is the chairman of first-division club Arsenal de Sarandi and eligible to run for the FA. If this were to occur and the presidency becomes a hereditary post, then Morales would be able to offer another ironic lesson for power-brokers at FAs round the world. 

From WSC 237 November 2006. What was happening this month

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