January 22, 2018
Thursday, July 31, 2014

The brusque survivor of Argentine soccer

Julio Grondona (top left) applauds, looking on as Lionel Messi hugs Barcelona’s President Sandro Rosell, after the Spanish team won a trophy.
By Daniel Edwards
The country’s national game deserves better than the controversial figure of Julio Grondona

It was a phrase cited half-joking, half in deadly sobriety. The only way that Don Julio Humberto Grondona would vacate his stronghold in the Argentine Football Association (AFA), the saying went, was when he departed finally from this world.

Ultimately, the prophecy was true. Yesterday the nation said goodbye to the man who had ruled over its most popular sport for 35 uninterrupted years. Grondona was taken to hospital for treatment on a heart condition after falling ill at home, and passed away at the age of 82. In so many ways, it is the end of an era that at times looked set to carry on eternally.

But who was the man who would become an infamous figure at the helm of the unofficial national game?

Julio Humberto Grondona was born in the Greater Buenos Aires city of Avellaneda in 1931. The boardroom was always his second home in football, and the young Grondona’s education in football’s inner workings began at the age of just 24. Alongside his brother Héctor and a group of friends from Avellaneda, Don Julio helped to found a new club, Arsenal de Sarandí, and in a possible early demonstration of his longevity he would stay at the institution for a full 19 years. Now an established member of the top flight and having won a first league title in 2012, Arsenal has nevertheless failed to shake off the title of “Grondona’s” team, with their rise up the league pyramid attributed to referees’ willingness to please their boss.

The short trip to Independiente

From Arsenal, Grondona took a short trip across Avellaneda to lead Independiente. Two titles in three years enhanced both the club and the president’s reputation, and the latter soon received the call to replace AFA chief Alfredo Cantilo in the top seat. To give some indication of just how complete the new man’s control over that Association would become, no president had ever served more than three years in the role before Grondona sat down in the plush Viamonte office.

Don Julio’s time at the AFA spanned military dictatorship and democracy, hyperinflation and default. During his stay in the Association’s headquarters, in the heart of Buenos Aires City, Argentina lived through 15 presidents, 10 national team coaches, three popes and countless fundamental changes both in its football, and society as a whole. If Grondona had one great talent, it was his ability to hold on to power at any cost.

The sport over which he presided in entering the AFA has changed beyond recognition over the intervening three decades. The national team coached to World Cup glory by César Luis Menotti had just one player, Valencia star Mario Kempes, who pursued his career away from Argentine soil. Alejandro Sabella’s squad that suffered final heart-break to Germany a matter of weeks ago boasted a grand total of three local footballers.

The sport transformed itself during Don Julio’s presidency, into a cut-throat, multi-national, billion-dollar enterprise that no longer respected international boundaries. But Grondona rolled with all the punches, his personality and contacts ensuring not only that he would hold an iron grip on the national game, but that thanks to his position as a FIFA vice-president Argentina would enjoy a standing on the international stage far beyond the prestige retained by the decimated, ever-declining Primera División.

Less savoury history

But there is also a less savoury history that the chief leaves behind. His failure, or indeed at times blunt refusal, to tackle the barra brava hooligan groups ensured that his reign would be a bloody one. Anti-violence NGO Salvemos al Fútbol (Let’s save football) claims that 283 supporters lost their lives during Grondona’s presidency, a shameful figure that seemed to have little effect on the man at the top. He turned a permanent blind eye to the phenomenon, denying any knowledge of those involved in the violence while insisting that the issue’s solution was a police matter, not related to his post.

The late president then leaves a complex legacy. He oversaw a World Cup win in 1986, two final appearances, two Olympic Games gold medals, two Copas América and no less than six World Cup victories at youth level. Under his administration, Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi, arguably the two greatest players the world has ever seen, became stars across the planet. The president condoned corruption, nepotism, violence and mismanagement on almost a daily basis, but no matter what his opponents threw at him he could not be unsettled, much less unseated. In his AFA fiefdom, Don Julio Grondona really was bullet-proof.

The late president’s authoritarian nature and refusal to share power now leaves the AFA in a quandary. With no succession in place, and the organization’s democratic apparatus so distorted and abused as to leave them effectively useless, the election of a new leader now that Grondona has left is likely to be a tortuous process. But it is also a great opportunity.

With Grondona’s iron grip finally loosened from the levers of power, Argentine football has the chance to right those wrongs ignored for decades by the man in charge.

The first task, of course, will be replacing outgoing coach Sabella, but far bigger challenges lie on the horizon. The chronic illness of organized violence, barely eased by the unsatisfactory “solution”of banning away fans and the half-finished Grondona pet project of the AFA plus identification scheme, must be first on the agenda. The economic paternalism of the Association and its long-term leader that saw lucrative government television rights handed out almost arbitrarily to clubs, favouring some and leaving others teetering on the brink of oblivion, is another key issue that will not disappear.

Few can imagine what a world without the brusque, uncompromising figure of Julio Grondona will be like. For better and for worse, he was the great survivor of Argentine football, carried out of the AFA as he had always threatened. A fearsome, imposing representative of the national game deserves to be mourned; but football itself deserves a better fate than what the last 35 years have delivered.

Rest in peace, Don Julio, and perhaps now peace can be restored to the game that for so long you considered your own.

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