Officially speaking

Sam Kelly explains a furore at the top of Argentine football, including accusations of a refereeing bias against a top club

With the furore surrounding the FIFA presidential elections in the week WSC went to press, response to the news was interesting in Argentina: the scandal has hardly had any coverage at all. That is not, however, to say that allegations of corruption have no place in the context of current affairs in Argentine football. They’re just more localised.

 Julio Grondona – incidentally, the only South American member of FIFA’s executive committee not to have been implicated in Lord Triesman’s statements to parliament – has ruled over Argentine football for 32 years, seemingly without ever being challenged. So it was a shock when River Plate president Daniel Passarella demanded, in a general meeting of the Argentine Football Association (AFA) on May 16, that Grondona resign his position.

Two days previously River had played Boca Juniors away, and lost an entertaining superclásico 2-0, having had at least two very good penalty shouts dismissed by referee Patricio Loustau. He was only refereeing the match after first choice Héctor Baldassi had gone into hospital days before the game. Passarella suggested that the AFA were deliberately choosing referees to favour River’s opponents, as the club – one of only three, with Boca and Independiente, never to have been relegated from Argentina’s top flight – struggle against the drop.

Passarella might simply be seen as a club president sticking up for his players, but even so it’s a remarkable strategy for him to have adopted. In Argentine football, any man who stands up in a meeting and demands Grondona’s resignation is either brave or stupid.

To compound matters, a couple of hours later, Boca vice-president Juan Carlos Crespi was on the phone to Fox Sports Radio Del Plata, telling their presenters that when he’d stood up in support of Grondona, Passarella had shouted at him “Vos no existis!” (You don’t exist!), one of the most belittling phrases going in Argentine Spanish.

Some mutterings suggested things had turned against River after a few years of unpaid “incentives” for referees to swing games their way had irritated the officials. More likely is that in their current on-pitch plight, River are simply finding more calls going against them than is usual.

There were suggestions that should River still be fighting against the drop towards the end of the season, they’d start to get a lot of beneficial decisions; the AFA’s three-season-long relegation system was born entirely of a desire to keep the big clubs in the top flight. The points won over the last three seasons are divided by the number of matches played (in the case of newly promoted clubs, only seasons spent in the current division in those last three years are used), giving a side every chance to get things right rather than punishing them for a single bad season. That expected bias in officiating so far hasn’t materialised. All the same, Passarella’s suggestion that there’s an agenda behind the choice of officials – rather than simply that many of them are bad referees – raised a lot of eyebrows.

River’s next match after that outburst came at home to San Lorenzo, and from the stands the atmosphere towards the officials was clear. One banner, hung from the front of the upper tier opposite the TV cameras, read: “Don’t mess with River, we’re all behind El Kaiser [Passarella’s nickname].” By the end of the match plenty, though not all, of River’s fans had turned their ire on goalkeeper Juan Pablo Carrizo, who committed a second enormous blunder in as many games (he’d scored an incredible own goal against Boca the previous week) to hand San Lorenzo a point in a 1-1 draw.

The pressure on the officials was kept up, though. That same weekend Godoy Cruz, who are challenging for what would be first national title for their region, Mendoza, drew 1-1 with Banfield – after having a perfectly legitimate goal disallowed and an even more obvious penalty appeal turned down.  “It would be inconvenient for the AFA to have us win the title,” raved captain Diego Villar after the game, implying that the association prefer to maintain the hegemony of Buenos Aires and the other more traditional footballing centres of La Plata and Rosario.

Villar is seen as harmless enough, but some – including Diego Maradona, who’s still taking any chance he gets to argue with Grondona after losing the national team manager’s job last year – have suggested Passarella might regret being so vocal, and that if officials didn’t have it in for River before, they might do now. As El Kaiser himself put it: “No one ever got relegated for asking for equal treatment.” It has to be said that if River do go down, it will be their own fault. All the same, FIFA can rest assured that they’re not alone in causing certain stakeholders some grief.

From WSC 293 July 2011