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Aug 15, 2009

A question of rights and wrongs

If you live in England, it's unlikely to have escaped your notice that the owners of Soccernet, ESPN, have recently acquired the rights to a portion of matches in the upcoming Premier League season. But it's not only in the home of football where fans will be getting used to watching football on a different channel from this season. In Argentina and Uruguay - part of the cradle of the game in South America - broadcasting change is also occurring, under different circumstances.

The first division championship was supposed to start this weekend, but three weeks ago a spanner was thrown in the works. That spanner was thrown by a group called Futbolístas Argentinos Agremiados (the Argentine Footballers' Union), whose Secretary General Sergio Marchi announced that the union's members - that is, the country's players - would effectively go on strike unless clubs paid players the debts they owed them in wages.

Debts to players totalled just over US$10m, and Racing, one of Argentina's historical 'Big Five', owed two of their former players a total of US$26,300. It should be instructive to those used to looking at financial figures for major European clubs that this figure was the cause of a real problem in Argentina.

Marchin claimed: 'With the current level of debt owed by the clubs to their players, it's impossible for the championship to begin in August as currently scheduled,' although on the same evening one unnamed club director told the press, off the record, that the championship would go ahead even if reserve sides had to be sent out on the opening weekend. That idea was scuppered last Wednesday, when the Argentine FA announced the championship would kick off one week late at the earliest, as they sought find a way round the impasse.

Something had to give. AFA President Julio Grondona - also a FIFA Vice-President and named by British magazine World Soccer as football's fourth most powerful individual last year - had already voiced his opinion that the TV companies, specifically TyC Sports (together with the Clarín media group under the title of TSC, owners of the domestic rights), should give the AFA more money to distribute to the clubs.

Marcelo Bombau, head of TyC Sports, pointed out that the contract for the rights was already in place until 2014, and that asking the company to increase the amount they paid at the drop of a hat - in fact Grondona wanted to double the amount the AFA charged for the rights - was a non-starter. But in the world of Argentine football, you don't mess with Don Julio.

Monday night saw a meeting with club directors during which the decision was reached to tear up the contract with TyC Sports and accept an offer from the Argentine government which would take first division matches onto the public TV network and will see the league increase takings from TV to AR$100m (around US$26m) per annum. The government even said they'd help smooth the passage of the contract through the courts, aware that TyC Sports are unlikely to react quietly to the new situation. Grondona is a man with connections, after all.

The fans will lose out - with TyC, every match had been televised every weekend, but that surely isn't going to be possible with the public network's lack of infrastructure and channels. The clubs are more important for Grondona, though. Who cares about the fans, right?

The reason this situation arose is that too many clubs were breaking what is known as the 'Ezeiza Pact'. Signed ten years ago in Ezeiza, an outlying district of Greater Buenos Aires which is home to the city's international airport and the Argentine national side's training complex, the pact stated that clubs who owed money to their squads wouldn't be allowed to begin the season in the league, but it's been ignored flagrantly since then.

One thing I feel I should point out is that, at odds with what some English-language news organisations have reported, Boca Juniors are not one of the clubs at whom the finger has been pointed. They're not exactly rolling in it but a stable decade of focussed leadership from successive presidents, combined with a sensible transfer policy and enormous success on the pitch, has seen them secure relative financial stability, in Argentine terms at least.

The top flight sides named as guilty parties were Racing Club, as mentioned above, along with River Plate, Independiente, San Lorenzo (together with Boca these first four make up Argentina's 'Big Five'), Huracán and the two Rosario clubs, Newell's Old Boys and Rosario Central.

One thing Grondona sidestepped when complaining initially about television's reluctance to pay money they'd never promised in the first place was the AFA's own role in allowing Argentina's barra bravas - hooligan gangs - too great an influence. Whilst admitting that the AFA had allowed clubs to get into debt by giving them handouts too frequently, he ignored the fact that they've also done nothing to extinguish the violence in the country's stadia, and the knock-on effect this has had for clubs financially.

For one thing, the barras put peaceful fans off visiting grounds, but for another they drain clubs' finances directly as well. Since they control a large section of the votes in club elections, presidents will give them cash, free tickets, transport or other favours in return for votes. At River Plate a couple of years ago it was discovered that the barras were storing weapons in a cupboard inside the club's stadium, El Monumental. The same gang are strongly suspected of having taken a cut of the transfer fee when, in December 2006, Gonzalo Higuaín moved to Real Madrid.

It's clear, then, that a new TV deal alone won't put Argentina's football on stable financial footing. More far-sightedness is required to avoid a repeat of the same scenario further down the line. Whether it's actually going to be applied or not, well, over to you, Señor Grondona.

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