Argentine fans cry foul over season delay

August 12, 2009

By Luis Andres Henao

In Argentina, where footballing great Diego Maradona is worshipped in his own church, everyone is asking the same question: What will it take to get the ball rolling again?

Fans are angst-ridden over the delay of the season as bad management and the global slowdown leave the country’s world-famous clubs unable to pay players and heavily in debt.

“It makes you mad,” said Nicolas Luca, a Boca Juniors fan who toured the club’s stadium last week. “Everyone’s waiting to see if it starts. Soccer is more than a passion here.”

Next to him, Juan Diaz, a 56-year-old Argentine living in Florida, snapped pictures of an empty green pitch. Then, he shoots the yellow and blue seating, trophies, club posters and even the locker room showers as a memento of his favorite club. 

“Not having soccer here is mad,” Diaz said. “There are too many economic interests in this fight and they’re hurting the Argentine people.”

The soccer dispute involves a wide range of key players including broadcasters, government entities, and the official fan clubs known as barras bravas.

Clubs say fallout from the severe world economic downturn has forced them to sell players to European clubs for a fraction of what they received in years past.

Seven first division clubs have racked up some $184 million in debt, including about $80 million in taxes. Clubs owners and the AFA say the only solution is to more than double what they charge for television rights. On Wednesday, theycancelled the existing TV deal.

But to many fans here it comes down to putting an end to the perceived corruption of soccer bosses.

“There is an embezzlement of funds,” Osvaldo Maciel, a taxi driver and River Plate fan said of his club. “They sold all the players and have had (rock) concerts all year (at the club’s stadium). Where’s the money now?”

The delay to the start of the season has angered fans, some of whom hurled stones and smashed windows at AFA’s offices.

At Boca Juniors’ La Bombanera stadiums, fans and shopkeepers are anxious for an end to the dispute. Businesses selling T-shirts and flags around the stadium are empty  except for an occasional tourist.

“Soccer cannot go untouched by the global crisis,” said restaurant owner Carlos Zinola, 61, a lifetime Boca fan. “They’re killing the game, people suffer all week and on Sunday, soccer gives them a way to escape their problems.”

Picture of empty La Bombonera stadium by REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci.

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It’s a great relief that a bit of strong arm politicking by AFA chief Julio Grondona has got the season back on track with kickoff pushed back to August 21st. Among poor financial management of clubs from top to bottom in Argentina the situation is not helped by third-party ownership of players. Playmaker Javier Pastore was transferred earlier this summer from Huracán to Palermo of Serie A for a hefty €6 million. None of this money made in back to the Buenos Aires club though with 45% of Pastore’s contract owned by lower league Talleres and the other 55% owned by a sports investment group. With money like this continuing to leave the game expect more trouble and strife on the balance sheets of Argentine clubs in the near future.

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