Grondona's death leaves Argentine football facing an uncertain future
"No one's removing me from the AFA until I die."
In the end, Julio Grondona's words proved accurate. The longtime head of the Argentina Football Association died Wednesday at the age of 82. It's a mark of the man's influence that many public figures in football -- from Lionel Messi to FIFA president Sepp Blatter -- offered public statements of sorrow.
I've written about Grondona many times before, and it's going to be odd covering Argentine football under anyone else; he has been the most powerful man at the Argentine FA since he took the post in 1979. A huge portion of the country's fans have never known any other president.
To put it another way: as I type, the country of Argentina is hours away from a possible debt default. Rodrigo Orihuela, a financial correspondent for Bloomberg, opined on Twitter that even if that happens, Grondona's death is probably still the bigger story, media-wise. Over the past few decades, Argentines have become more accustomed to defaults than to changes of president at the AFA, after all.
In his 35 years in charge, Grondona changed the face of Argentine football. Under his mandate, the structure of the country's top flight changed completely three times (with a further three more minor adjustments) and is already set for another major revision that will expand the Primera División to 30 teams and a year-round calendar in February 2015. His influence will live on after his death.
Grondona took charge of the AFA when the country was under military dictatorship; he remained in charge under subsequent governments of all political ideologies, including the nation's return to democracy in 1983. When asked on Wednesday afternoon what Grondona's greatest virtue was, AFA spokesman Ernesto Cherquis Bialo responded, "He understood football with every shirt, and without wearing any shirt in particular." He meant team support, but it's tempting to draw the analogy with Grondona's nature as a political chameleon as well.
Grondona wasn't only powerful in Argentine football, but in FIFA, too. He joined the executive committee in 1988, and was in charge of TV rights -- including for the World Cup -- recently in his capacity as a senior vice president. In short, Grondona not only had influence at FIFA, but knew where the money was.
That expertise in television rights -- and Grondona's canny political maneuvering -- proved useful when, in 2009, a players' strike saw the league season postponed. Grondona was able to negotiate a new television deal with the Argentine government to move the Primera División to free-to-air television. While that move has proved popular in the intervening five years (albeit the heavily pro-government advertising during breaks has been less so), not everything Grondona has done has been so positive.
According to the NGO Salvemos Al Fútbol ("Let's Save Football"), which works to bring violence in Argentine football to greater attention and pressure the authorities to make changes to prevent it, 286 people have died as a result of football-related violence since the game was first played in Argentina. Of those deaths, 184 came while Grondona was AFA president, including an escalation in the presence and influence of the barra bravas (organised supporters' groups) on Argentine clubs.
(To put the above into context, of the 102 deaths before Grondona took charge, 71 occurred on a single day in 1968 during a River Plate vs. Boca Juniors superclásico.)
In late 2011, a television sting caught Grondona admitting to a journalist with a hidden camera that he held back TV rights payments to clubs in order to keep them in his pocket when he needed to call in a favour or when the elections for AFA president came around. The sting was broadcast days before the association's committee met to elect their president for the next four years, but it didn't affect the results; Grondona won by a landslide, as he always did. Club presidents might not have liked him, but in an election carried out by a show of hands around a table, no one wanted to be seen voting against him.
In 2003, Grondona came under fire for controversial comments about Jewish referees in a television interview with TyC Sports. Grondona questioned whether Jewish referees could work at the highest levels of football, saying "Jews don't like hard work." He later apologised for his words after DAIA, a Jewish association in Argentina (which has a large Jewish community) complained.
Grondona did later employ a Jewish manager -- José Pekerman, who'd already been in charge of the youth national teams -- to lead Argentina at the 2006 World Cup, where they reached the quarterfinals. Pekerman resigned following defeat to Germany and was unwilling to return to the Argentina job while Grondona remained as president but with Alejandro Sabella set to step down (a press conference confirming his decision was cancelled Wednesday after Grondona's death), the Colombia boss might be fielding a few phone calls in the coming days.
And that's another point: not only are the AFA about to take their first tentative steps after the death of a man who has ruled for 35 years of their 121-year history, but that death has come at a time of great change for Argentine football. A new national team manager needs to be found, a big change is about to be introduced in the league and Argentine football's influence within FIFA could now be tested (though they'll retain a FIFA vice-presidency via CONMEBOL).
Argentinos Juniors president Luis Segura will take over as interim president. He has long been a close ally of Grondona, but it is uncertain where the organisation will turn when elections are held in the next three months.
Sam Kelly is based in Buenos Aires and has been ESPN FC's South America correspondent since 2008. He also writes for When Saturday Comes, The Blizzard (both U.K.) and Howler (U.S.) and previews Argentine Primera Division matches for Hong Kong Jockey Club. He is the producer of Hand Of Pod, the Internet's finest (OK, only) English-language Argentine football podcast and tweets as @HEGS_com.