Television's growing influence on South American football is reflected by recent developments in Argentina, as described by Peter Hudson

To see what football looks like when it is controlled by television, look no further than Argentina. It is a moot point whether the most powerful man in local football is Julio Grondona, head of the Argentine Football Association, AFA, or Carlos Avila, president of Torneos y Competencias, the company that controls TV rights to the championship. For Avila has used his franchise to build a company that after little more than a decade generates annual revenues of US$210 million and has the clout to match.

In practice, Avila and Grondona make a formidable team. While the former has the financial muscle, Grondona has the institutional power that comes from 19 years at the head of the AFA and his position as second-in-command at FIFA. You don’t become João Havelange’s deputy by being a nice guy and Grondona has been no stranger to scandal. It is he who made Avila what he is today, awarding Torneos an exclusive and much-questioned contract to televise the championship until 2014. Under the circumstances, it is hardly a surprise that wholly unsubstantiated rumours suggest Grondona secretly received a stake in Torneos as a token of Avila’s appreciation.

The clubs, in turn, receive a total of $45 million, which makes television revenue their biggest source of income. Since they have all also received substantial advances on the contract to help pay off their debts, they have little choice but gratitude. The share-out is far from even, however, and has more to do with the ability to attract TV audiences than with results on the pitch. The two best supported sides, Boca Juniors and River Plate, receive $5 million each, in spite of the fact that Boca have not won the championship since 1992. Meanwhile Lanus, who over the last three years have as good a record as Boca, but far fewer fans, receive just $1,200,000. To put things into perspective, that is less than Torneos pays any of its three leading journalists.

In the face of protests from many of the clubs, the company is likely to increase the payments. But the proportion paid to each club will remain the same, meaning that the gulf between the rich and poor will grow still wider. In fact, Boca and River are already widely believed to receive another $5 million under the table from Torneos in order not to throw their considerable weight behind the protests.

As if the financial imbalance was not enough, it seems that football’s leading powers have been trying to find other ways of helping the big clubs. Javier Castrilli, Argentina’s leading referee, has caused Grondona apoplexy with his claims that Jorge Romo, head of the referees’ association, was instructing his charges to bear in mind the power of a club before making controversial decisions against them. Romo’s son happens (surely by sheer coincidence) to be employed by Torneos.

Castrilli has since been forced to resign. But his charges created a storm because of his high standing both internationally (he was Argentina’s representative at the last World Cup) and at home. Indeed, such is his reputation that several leading political parties are trying to persuade him to stand as a candidate, in the hope that his reputation for honesty will rub off on them. Castrilli has repeated his accusations before an investigating judge and Congressional committee. For good measure, he added that Avila offered to pay off all the debts of the clubs (around $250 million) in return for the relegation of four of the smaller Buenos Aires sides.

Since 12 of the 20 clubs in the first division come from Buenos Aires, some of them must be removed if Avila is to realise his dream of a series of regional fran-chises to serve as cannon fodder for River and Boca. Avila in fact took control of one of the clubs, Argentinos Juniors, for the 1993-1994 season and promptly moved the club to Mendoza, over 1,000km to the west. His calculations were purely economic. Mendoza has a population of almost 800,000 but no major football club. But the move was unsuccessful and the club was relegated the following season. Now back in Buenos Aires and under new management it won promotion last year.

Another option under consideration is a reduction of the league. That would allow the bigger clubs more time for largely meaningless international tournaments like the Mercosur and Merconorte cups, inaugurated this year. The Mercosur tournament was a joint initiative by Presidents Menem of Argentina and Sanguinetti of Uruguay, who wanted to improve the image of their trade bloc by naming a football tournament after it. But the potential financial benefits were music to the ears of the clubs and Torneos. Participation is by invitation only and the criteria for selection are the size and wealth of the club, although unfashionable Velez Sarsfield manage to gain grudging admission after winning a string of local and international tournaments over recent years. 

The competition has failed to attract decent crowds and has not even garnered particularly large TV audiences, although the prize money of over $20 million has managed to keep many clubs interested. That is the result of another AFA masterstroke, the decision to play two 19-match mini-championships instead of a full 38-match season. The shorter tournaments are supposed to be more exciting and therefore presumably make for better television. But they also mean that a team that has a run of bad form can find itself out of the running after five or six matches. With little chance of catching the leaders, some sides have started putting out their youth sides after only 11 matches, making the results a farce.

Nor is relegation a concern for any of the bigger sides. The AFA changed the rules in 1983, when Boca were threatened with relegation and River were far from safe. Since then relegation has been decided on the average over six tournaments, meaning that only the newly promoted or sides that have been hovering around the bottom of the league for years have any chance of going down.

But according to Andres Gilio, a local journalist, even the smaller clubs in the first division would object to one of the big two being relegated, since it is the capacity attendances guaranteed by these two that pay the bills for the rest of the year. “There is nothing they would like better than to play Boca three times a year,” he says. “If Boca were relegated, sales of football magazines would drop by 40 per cent and radio and TV audiences would drop by 40 per cent.” With so much money at stake, the men who run Argentine football are determined that issues as important as relegation should not be decided on something as unreliable as sporting merit.

From WSC 142 December 1998. What was happening this month

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