Argentine season rests on TV rights row

BUENOS AIRES - Argentine football officials held crisis talks on Tuesday as speculation grows over a possible government takeover of televised rights as a way to rescue debt-laden clubs and get the season underway.

The Argentine Football Association (AFA) halted the start of the season after the union representing footballers said clubs owed players at least $8 million, and officials are now scrambling to ensure play can begin a week late on August 21.

"Negotiations are open to any sector that's willing to buy the rights," AFA spokesman Ernesto Cherquis Bialo told Reuters late on Monday, adding that there was "an interesting proposal from the Argentine government".

Fans are angry over the delay to the season and many accuse club bosses of incompetence and corruption.

"A Sunday without soccer isn't a Sunday," said Jose Roldan, a tour guide at Boca Juniors, Argentina's best-known club.

"Clubs are being mismanaged," he said, standing beside a statue of Diego Maradona, who as a player helped Argentina win their second World Cup and now coaches the national team.

Boca Juniors, along with other first division clubs such as River Plate, Independiente and Racing, are among the major debtors due to factors including broadcast rights, government controls and payments they make to organised supporters' groups known as 'barras bravas'.

AFA President Julio Grondona said seven first division teams and 10 second division clubs owe their players money.

The first division clubs, which have racked up debts of some $184 million, say fallout from the world economic downturn has forced them to sell players to European teams for a fraction of the price they got in recent years.

Club owners and the AFA say the only solution is to more than double what they charge for television rights, but broadcaster Torneos y Competencias, or TyC, says the contract has already been increased to $70 million per year.

"We're no longer going to be the cow the AFA milks every time they need money," TyC President Marcelo Bombau told Reuters. "They're asking us for a 200 percent increase in a week - it's impossible."


TSC, the company that holds the televised rights, is a partnership between TyC and media conglomerate Grupo Clarin, whose news outlets have criticised the government of President Cristina Fernandez and her husband Nestor Kirchner.

Argentine media say the Kirchners are trying to get back at the Clarin group by seizing control of soccer broadcasting rights and turning them over to state TV. But Cabinet Chief Anibal Fernandez denied the reports on Monday.

The government has already lent a hand to the clubs, giving them a 10-year, low-interest repayment plan on nearly $80 million in overdue taxes, but that was not enough to ease the clubs' funding crunch.

"Football's losing its credibility," said Independiente fan Horacio Villalba. "The AFA is to soccer what the International Monetary Fund is to Latin America. It keeps on giving clubs money they won't be able to repay so it can control them."