November 1, 2014
That emblematic phrase “Todo pasa” inscribed on the ring of the late Argentine Football Association (AFA) president Julio Grondona carries a certain ambiguity when translated into English because it could be understood as “everything happens” but also “all things must pass” (or even “anything goes,” although not the usual phrase) — all these possibilities now apply equally to Grondona. Almost every newspaper used the words “the owner of the ball” somewhere in their headlines when chronicling his demise in his 82nd year (a story competing in impact with the climax of the default crisis that same Wednesday) but in many ways this image is misleading. Rather than a leader, Grondona should be seen as a survivor during his 35 years at the helm of Argentine soccer during all the volatile political history of that period. Both at home and abroad, Grondona always played second fiddle — to an incredible variety of 15 presidents ranging from military dictator Jorge Videla at his start in 1979 to the current incumbent Cristina Fernández de Kirchner who defines herself as left of centre, as well as being a loyal subordinate to four-term FIFA president Sepp Blatter during most of his quarter-century as part of the global soccer body’s executive (and João Havelange before him). Grondona was also seen as the absolute master of a mostly corrupt local soccer club leadership in league with hooliganism but could he not also be seen as a reflection of their interests?
Unlike some current government officials, Grondona never faced an indictment and even if he did, he would be entitled to the presumption of innocent until proven guilty but the persistence of scandals surrounding both AFA and FIFA during so many years seems more than a coincidence. At the very least he co-existed with corruption, violence, nepotism and mismanagement on almost a daily basis while an always suspect FIFA is increasingly considered to have crossed the line with the notoriety surrounding both the recent World Cup and future tournaments (especially Qatar).
But even taking the loftiest view of Grondona’s virtues and his contribution to the sport, he would still have to answer for the enormous vacuum he now leaves behind him. “The trouble with an Augustus is that he is usually followed by a Tiberius,” wrote John Stuart Mill (referring to a great Roman emperor succeeded by a cruel yet weak one) in his critique of absolutism and the final verdict on Grondona should embrace his legacy as much as his personal record.