A farcical election and AFA’s struggles to move on after the death of Julio Grondona
In December 2015 the Argentinian Football Association (AFA) held elections to decide who would be president for the next four years. It was the first election since the death of the long-serving Julio Grondona who, having been elected in 1979, held the presidency until his death on 30 July 2014. On the nine occasions on which he stood, only once was a vote registered against him, when in 1991 the former referee Teodoro Nitti voted for himself.
Whatever else Grondona was, he was a very capable politician, used to haggling with national governments and with clubs determined to get an edge in every transaction. He proved incapable of staunching the violence that left 185 dead during his presidency, however, and exported to Fifa the ‘one country, one vote’ approach he knew from Argentina with its system of ‘one club, one vote’, claiming that it was democratic while ignoring the question of adequate representation.
He was also a key mover in the establishment of the Fútbol para todos programme that has revolutionised Argentinian football since 2009. Cristina Kirchner’s populist government effectively subsidised football by buying out the deal the league had with the pay-channel TyC (which was linked to Grupo Clarín, the media group that opposed Cristina Kirchner’s government and that of her husband Néstor before her) and insisted that every game be screened live.
After long meetings between the presidents of the five most powerful clubs – Boca Juniors, River Plate, Racing Club, Independiente and San Lorenzo – Grondona’s vice-president Luis Segura was confirmed as acting president until the election, which was postponed, largely because AFA has traditionally liked to know who would win before getting around to voting.
Segura, who had been involved in the sale of tickets for the Word Cup in Brazil, would not have been able to preside calmly. There were several candidates for his position but the main contender was the 55-year-old Marcelo Tinelli, one of the most famous people in the country, the host of the reality show Bailando por un Sueño (‘Dancing for a Dream’).
Tinelli represents the Argentina of the nineties, the neoliberalism of the president Carlos Menem, when people laughed as the young presenter conducted them through bloopers. The former San Telmo youth-team player had an easy charm and a cheeky smile and developed great popularity. He became a powerful producer with his own radio show until eventually he was able to meddle in what was still his first love: football.
In 1998, Tinelli bought 57% of the Spanish second-division side Badajoz and tried to take a number of Argentinian players there, but he left after two years of no great success. As he became more powerful he came closer to the club he supports, San Lorenzo de Almagro. In 2012, he stood as vice-president on the ticket of with the young presidential hopeful Matías Lammens and easily won the elections.
San Lorenzo were going through a disastrous period and had to survive a relegation play-off against Instituto de Córdoba, but Lammens and Tinelli oversaw investments that led to San Lorenzo winning the Inicial in 2013 and the Libertadores the following season. Two external factors were hugely beneficial for Tinelli: that Francis, the first Argentinian pope, is a San Lorenzo fan brought attention and influence; while the battle to return the club to their traditional home in Boedo, which had been going on almost since the moment the junta forced them to sell it in 1979, was won at last.
When Tinelli declared his candidacy for the AFA presidency, he was initially rebuffed because he lacked, by a matter of months, the requisite four years of working in football administration. This was seen by many as evidence of residual grondonisme within the organisation, trying to keep out anybody who hadn’t been connected with the Grondona regime over the previous three decades.
Both Tinelli and Segura, the continuity candidate, flirted with candidates for the state presidency. It became apparent that Tinelli had more support, largely because he represented the new, connected with marketing through his contacts in the television world.
But Tinelli committed a vital tactical error on the final day of campaigning for the state presidency. Two candidates remained, the pro-Kirchner Daniel Scioli and the former Boca Juniors president Mauricio Macri. Scioli was granted some time on Tinelli’s television programme, while Macri was not – but it was Macri who won the election.
For many, the AFA election was the battle of the old grondonisme represented by Seguro and the new broom of Tinelli. But both of Grondona’s sons, Julio, the president of Arsenal de Sarandí, and Humberto, a coach, revealed they had been friends with Tinelli from their days of playing youth football together. Tinelli was always a pragmatist, never an ideologue. The AFA election was between two grondonistas, one with an old face and one with a young.
The voting system seemed simple: there were 75 representatives from across the country, each had one vote and a simple majority was sufficient to win. Nobody was quite sure who was going to win because of a widespread tendency to lie about voting intentions and because intimidation from barras bravas, often intercepting delegates on their way to the toilet, was rife.
Each candidate was given their ballot paper. One by one they voted. Then an official approached Tinelli and whispered in his ear. Tinelli turned. “Noooo!” he said, the shape of his mouth clear. Something strange had happened. The election, with 75 votes, was tied at 38 each. It was suggested two ballot papers must have stuck together so a delegate effectively voted twice. What should have been a simple matter had become a farce.
The election could not be conducted again because two of the delegates had left. Julio Koropeski, of Crucero del Norte, who were relegated from the top flight last season, and Angel Lozano of Excursionistas, a club in the third division, had rushed off to be with their families because they’d been threatened by barras.
Macri suggested placing a third candidate, Armando Pérez, the president of Belgrano de Córdoba, in charge, but that was rejected. Alejandro Amor, the ombudsman of Buenos Aires, who had overseen the city’s mayoral elections, was scathing and proposed a change in the voting system. Leonardo López, president of the second-division club Independiente Rivadavia, revealed he had been offered 500,000 pesos in cash by “the people of Chiqui Tapia”, a syndicate connected with Segura and the third-division club Barracas Central.
Three days after the abortive AFA election, Boca Juniors elected Daniel Angelici as their president. Angelici was a close ally of Macri and had denounced AFA after Boca were eliminated from the Copa Libertadores following a pepper-gas attack on River Plate players in the tunnel when the two great rivals met in the round of 16. Angelici believed Segura had not lobbied Conmebol hard enough to have the remaining minutes of the game played in a neutral stadium, which was the classic Grondona fix in such cases.
Given that, it might be thought that Angelici would have voted for Tinelli. But Tinelli and Angelici had clashed after a league game in which San Lorenzo beat Boca 1-0. Both sides were without key players, who were away with the Argentina national team playing a friendly in the US. But San Lorenzo were able to field the Paraguay international Néstor Ortigoza who had been freed by his national side the day before the game. Angelici felt cheated, believing the game should not have been played without the internationals and voted for Segura because “the Boca fans did not want Tinelli”. Angelici himself, having been almost a pariah in early 2015, was in the Casa Rosada with the president by the end of the year, one of the most powerful men in Argentinian football. “If he does things properly,” Segura said, “he could be the Messi of executives.”
Angelici also has influence in the legal system and even in the intelligence services, where Macri placed his friend Gustavo Arribas, part of the HAZ group of agents, along with Fernando Hidalgo, who represented most Argentina national team players in the mid-nineties and Pini Zahavi, a close ally of Roman Abramovich when he was first investing in Chelsea. No sooner had Macri been elected than he outlined amendments to Fútbol para todos and set down a timetable for AFA to elect a new president.
So the presidents of the five grandes agreed to leave Segura in provisional control until June 30, with Angelici as general secretary. June 30 is four days after the final of the centenary Copa América, which is far from ideal. But then, nothing at AFA ever is.