Striking role

wsc303After financial crises, the 2012 season could emerge as an unlikely success story for Peru’s Primera División, says Nick Dorrington

2011 was a terrible year for Peruvian football. The football federation’s flaccid attempts at regulating the financial difficulties suffered by the majority of first division clubs turned the national league into a farce. The death of Alianza Lima supporter Walter Oyarce, who was pushed off a stand by rival fans, highlighted the growing problem of football-related violence. Stricter enforcement was required if 2012 was to offer any improvement.

It was announced in December that clubs unable to provide documentary evidence of their ability to pay the entire annual salary of their players would not be permitted to enter the 2012 championship. However, just two weeks before the start of the season, only six of the 16 top-flight clubs had submitted their budgets. Shortly afterwards, a dispute between the players’ union and the clubs over payment of owed wages resulted in the union announcing strike action for the first weekend of the season. The professionals would be replaced with youth-team players for the opening fixtures.

There were suggestions that players from Sporting Cristal and Universidad San Martin would still take to the pitch, as they were among the few who had been paid. They elected instead to strike in solidarity with their fellow professionals, a decision that proved to be disastrous for those employed by San Martin. “The players argue solidarity, but their solidarity should be with our project,” the club’s manager Alvaro Barco sniped. “We have suffered a betrayal. We will retire the club from professional football.”

Two other clubs, Cesar Vallejo and Union Comercio, also announced their intentions to pull out of the 2012 championship. Inti Gas, sponsored by the energy company of the same name, sacked their coach and professional squad. The league had again descended in chaos and there seemed to be little hope of the season going ahead as planned.

Amid of the crisis, Peru’s much-criticised football federation chief, Manuel Burga, flew to Switzerland for a meeting with FIFA, causing one newspaper to run the scornful headline: Burga leaves for Switzerland as Peruvian football dies. It soon emerged that Burga had in fact been called to FIFA headquarters to explain the situation. He returned with renewed purpose, mediating talks between the players’ union and the clubs, appointing an international auditing company to regulate the payment of player wages, and obtaining an emergency decree from Congress that permitted the appointment of temporary administrators to restructure the debts of the clubs in the most perilous financial states.

The first institution to suffer administration was Universitario, the most successful club in the country. Years of mismanagement had led to debts mounting up to the point where they far outstripped the club’s assets. Potential transfer fees were lost when three players were granted release from their contracts due to unpaid wages. Despite the valiant fundraising exploits of the club’s supporters, who raised $262,000 (£166,000), the administrators will face a difficult task
trying to drag the club back onto a solid financial footing.

As the federation began to enact new regulations, San Martin’s former players were keeping themselves fit by training in a local park. Cesar Vallejo and Union Comercio had subsequently reversed their decisions to quit, leaving San Martin as the only club defiant in their stand. Their former players felt angry at a perceived lack of support. “I feel sad because my team-mates and I showed solidarity with our fellow professionals who suffered debts,” said midfielder Ronald Quinteros. “Where are those friends now? Where is the union? It hurts us to hear that the championship will resume with 15 teams and the rest of them are doing nothing about it.”

Good news was just around the corner for Quinteros and his team-mates. Following protracted talks, San Martin agreed to resume football activities and re-enter the 2012 championship. Barco praised the willingness of the football federation to take action and described the new regulations and measures as conducive to a championship of “cleanliness and equality”. Five players had already left the club of their own free will, while the two supposed ringleaders of the strike action had been sacked, but all others had their contracts reinstated.

This year’s Peruvian championship will therefore, against all odds, be contested by its full complement. The league and its governance are still far from perfect but there can be genuine hope that the directives put in place can at least go some way to securing the future of the country’s clubs, and with it the league itself.

From WSC 303 May 2012