Pirates, Politics and Protests: The Julio Grondona Story

It was Pitt the Elder who said in 1770 that "unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it". He should know, he was Prime Minister of Britain in the late 18th century when they had just discovered Australia and still ruled over the pesky locals on the other side of the North Atlantic.

Now, in football there aren’t many people that could be described as having ‘absolute power’. Sepp Blatter is at least notionally answerable to the executive committee at FIFA, even if his 13 years in office seems like far too long for anyone to stay in such a role. But such a term is nothing compared to FIFA’s second in charge, Senior Vice President Julio Grondona of Argentina.

Having taken over as President of the Argentine Football Association (AFA) in the wake of his nation’s 1978 World Cup win, Grondona has been in power there for a staggering 32 years and was this week re-elected after a controversial few days in Buenos Aires.

Polemics aren’t anything new to Grondona; over the years he has been involved in so many frankly ridiculous scenes that they’re probably best addressed in bullet point form.

•    He once declared that Jews couldn’t referee because “It's hard work, and, you know, Jews don’t like hard work.”

•    In a discussion with delegates of the English FA about the AFA’s possible support for the 2018 World Cup bid he said “we’ll be brief. Give us back the Falklands, which are ours, and you will get my vote”.

•    He also called England ‘liars’ and ‘pirates’ who ‘disturb the FIFA family’.

•    In 1969, he was suspended from running football clubs for a year by the AFA after assaulting a referee.

•    At this same time, he was serving as President of Arsenal de Sarandi (the club he founded with his brother, and whose stadium is named after him) and also as President of rival club Independiente’s football committee.

•    Despite adovocating ‘federalisacion’ – a decentralisation of the Buenos Aires-centred footballing picture – his tenure has seen the league title leave Buenos Aires or Buenos Aires province just three times in 54 championships.

•    Grondona introduced the ‘promedio’ relegation system based on a points average over three years of competition – which makes it more difficult for big teams to be relegated.

•    When River Plate still managed to get relegated this June, he proposed the idea of a 40-team top flight, televised on a new AFA TV channel.

Yet the above is far from an exhaustive list; just this year Diego Maradona alleged that before Argentina's vital 1993 World Cup qualifying playoff with Australia, Grondona had ensured that there would be no doping controls so Argentina players “could take anything [they] wanted”.

Maradona also alleged that the team had communally been given “speedy coffee” and although the exact chemical composition hasn’t been confirmed, you can be sure that it was more likely to be found on the Tour de France hotel loop than your local Starbucks.

Grondona was quick to deny those allegations – well, some of them: "Who knows if mistakenly, with the fear that something could happen, I made sure that in the last game there would not be a doping [control]. That doesn't mean that the door was open for the players to dope themselves, which is what was made understood in previous statements."

The latest controversy comes from the video below (in Spanish), which is a hidden camera video taken by Carlos Avila in which Grondona talks of transporting “dirty money by motorbikes” and uses the phrase '’Grondona has the final say on everything,'’

Avila has accused him of money laundering, fraud and extortion and in another video produces pictures of bank statements and the like to claim that Grondona has been embezzling funds into Swiss accounts containing more than US$30m.

Although the evidence seems fairly watertight, there is an axe to grind with Avila and Grondona. Avila was head of TyC television, which had had broadcasting rights for the domestic leagues from 1985 onwards. TyC became part of the Clarin Group – the largest media conglomerate in Argentina, but one which had a long-running feud with President Kirchner.

In the wake of this, Grondona's AFA broke the TyC contract and sold the rights to games (at a higher price) to public television – the initiative known as 'futbol para todos' [Football For All]. Since then the feud between the ruling Kirchners and Clarin has swollen to envelope the AFA and particularly Grondona.

Despite protests against him in the last six months, he last night arrived at the AFA headquarters in the capital to have his mandate renewed for a ninth consecutive term.

There is a growing swell of disapproval towards Grondona, with River Plate president Daniel Passarella, Oscar Ruggieri, Diego Maradona, Cesar Menotti and Juan Sebastian Veron all influential and now open critics.

Veron this week said that he won’t be heading into football management but instead will be looking to become president of Estudiantes, his current club.

Among the vested interests and cronies of the AFA, perhaps it is Argentina’s best hope that he continues his upwards trajectory towards the country’s top job. As Veron astutely notes, “I think it’s necessary that more players involve themselves in the game as directors”.

Given the Grondona-led AFA's refusal to challenge the Barra Bravas and combat violence in the stadiums (where 257 have died during his tenure), it is to be hoped that no more need die before such dinosaurs of football administration are removed from power.