Due to a series of political manoeuvres, Argentine fans can now see more football than ever before. Rodrigo Orihuela explains

Football is a central part of Argentine cultural heritage and, therefore, everybody should enjoy the right to watch live broadcasts of all domestic matches free of charge. This statement does not come from a bitterly disappointed fan tired of ever rising pay-per-view costs. It is actually the crux of the argument used by the Argentine government to justify a £96 million year-long deal to acquire the rights to broadcast football free-to-air.

Thanks to this deal, Argentine fans started to enjoy their recently discovered right on Friday August 21, when the season opened with two smaller teams, Gimnasia y Esgrima de La Plata and Godoy Cruz, facing each other on national TV. Over the weekend, the remaining nine matches of the first round were all broadcast free-to-air and all channels were allowed to replay goals and highlights for no charge. It was an odd experience as far as television sports coverage goes: one minute a goal was scored on one channel and right away every other channel was showing it.

From a business point of view, the deal seems bizarre. The Argentine FA (AFA) had a solid 18-year contract with a private conglomerate which it had to break to enter the murky world of state enterprise. For the Argentine football establishment it was a history-making moment, but it was triggered by the entirely unrelated matter of overdue salaries. In late July, the footballers union demanded payment of all wages and filed legal complaints requesting the suspension of all indebted teams. The total debt claimed was £6.4m, a third of which is owed by top-division clubs. Because of the complaints, the start of the season was delayed from August 14 until a solution was found.

To settle the claims, club officials asked the AFA’s autocratic chairman, Julio Grondona, for cash. Grondona, who is also FIFA’s senior vice-president, went to the company who owned the football broadcasting rights, TSC, for an advance on future contract obligations. TSC responded by offering £7m. The clubs rejected the offer and said they wanted to sign a new deal, even though TSC’s exclusivity rights had been extended two years ago until 2014. As part of their demands, the clubs said they wanted the £43m the AFA was meant to receive over the next five years to be doubled. As TSC prepared to haggle, Grondona continued to look for ways to patch the financial mess.

Clubs do not only owe paycheques to footballers, they also owe nearly £15m in tax arrears. Grondona’s second move was to ask the national tax agency to cancel the debt. The government then pledged to write off the outstanding amount and to pay more than TSC for the broadcasting rights. All it asked in return was that the AFA cut ties with TSC. The £96m a year the government was willing to provide was almost three times the amount paid by TSC.

TSC is a partnership between Argentina’s leading sports channel, TyC, and Grupo Clarín, the country’s largest media conglomerate. While TSC has had exclusive broadcast rights since 1991, Grondona and TyC go further back to the mid-1980s when the channel became the first to invest heavily in football. The left-leaning Kirchner government wanted Grondona to get rid of TSC as a way of attacking Clarín. The government claims the media conglomerate is promoting the interests of certain rightwing business and political groups, such as big farming corporations. Taking away one of the group’s major earners is as good a way as any to damage its interests.

Grondona promptly agreed and on August 20 the deal between the AFA and the government was officially announced by President Cristina Fernández de Kirch-ner on all free-to-air and cable news channels. She was flanked on one side by Grondona and on the other by Diego Maradona. The event ended with Fernández de Kirchner smiling at the cameras as she hoisted an Argentina shirt with her name inscribed on the back.

From WSC 272 October 2009

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