Soccer sinks with economy
By DAVID ADAMS, Times Latin America Correspondent
BUENOS AIRES -- When times are hard, Argentines have always had soccer, the national sport, to lift their spirits.
But with the country mired in the worst economic crisis in history, even "futbol," as it is called here, is suffering.
"This isn't a game any more," said a disgusted 65-year-old soccer fan, Roberto Meucchi, as he watched hundreds of riot police prepare for a match involving Independiente, one of the top clubs in the capital. "It's like everything in this country, a big dirty business."
Violence, plus widespread allegations of graft and extortion, are putting a major damper on the run up to the soccer World Cup, one of the most eagerly awaited sporting events on earth. Argentina is a favorite to win the tournament, which opens in South Korea and Japan at the end of May.
But pride in the national team stands in stark contrast with the state of the game back home.
A series of ugly incidents involving rival fans at local stadiums in recent weeks have resulted in four deaths and dozens of injuries from gunshots and stabbings. The bloodshed has led to calls to suspend the season.
The dilemma facing Argentine soccer is symptomatic of the country's wider financial crisis, say analysts. Just as corrupt politicians and businessmen are accused of bankrupting the nation's economy, greedy soccer bosses and club presidents are blamed for the soccer crisis.
"The government needs to intervene and reform the entire structure of the game," said Carlos Ares, a leading Argentine journalist. "I see it as a great opportunity for the government. If they take action and solve the soccer problem it will send a message that things can be fixed in this country."
But the problems may be insurmountable.
After decades of mismanagement, most professional clubs are in financial ruin, including some of the most famous names in South American soccer -- River Plate, Boca Juniors, Racing Club -- teams that have produced some of the world's top players, including Diego Maradona and Gabriel Batistuta.
The top 20 league clubs have estimated debts of about $200-million. Some teams are so broke they can't afford to pay professional players and use amateurs instead. Salaries vary from as little as $20,000 a year to no more than $100,000, compared to the multimillion dollar contracts offered in Europe. Consequently, only one member of the country's national squad currently plays in Argentina.
After the national peso currency was devalued more than 140 percent, soccer clubs have reduced admission prices. Even so attendance at games is dropping.
Just as the government privatized state companies to finance its day-to-day spending, clubs have been forced to sell their best players to raise much-needed foreign currency. Independiente sold its young star, Diego Forlan, to Manchester United, Britain's top club, in January for $10-million.
"Thanks to him we're all being paid," said Nestor Clausen, Independiente's coach and a former member of the Argentine team that won the World Cup in 1986. "That gave us some breathing room."
But clubs are running out of marketable players. European clubs realize they can get away with offering less because of the economic desperation in Argentina.
Interviewed outside the dressing room before a recent game, Clausen, 39, said it wasn't just the lack of money that was killing the game.
"It's the guns and the drugs," he said. "There's always been violence in Argentine football, but before they were fights between men with raised fists. Now it's cowards armed with pistols."
Like many who love the game, Clausen put the blame on politicians who had allowed violence -- and the sports' finances -- to get out of hand. Although the country has laws specifically designed to deal with "sports hate" crimes, critics say the culprits are often allowed to go free.
It's Argentine soccer's dirty little secret: an ugly, albeit reluctant, conspiracy between club directors and what are known as the "barras bravas," Spanish slang for "tough guys," or the ganglike element among local fans.
Unlike the British "hooligans," the barras bravas exert influence over club management through intimidation, including death threats.
"They go to the houses of club directors and threaten them at gunpoint," said Hugo Van Schelt, 48, president of Los Andes, a recently demoted second division team on the outskirts of Buenos Aires.
"It's a vicious circle that's hard to break," said Van Schelt, whose club recently refused to pay its barras bravas transport to an away game. "We are waiting for the reaction."
What normally happens is fans will use violence to blackmail the teams, often by organizing crowd trouble during matches, forcing the clubs to fork out large sums for additional police protection. The barras bravas' demands range from selection of players and managers to help in sorting out problems with the police.
Despite calls for the government to take tougher action, including legislation to deduct points from offending teams and harsher penalties for fans, authorities appear reluctant to intervene.
"Soccer is a tribal passion. Everyone follows the same color, so the politicians and the police all identify with the team," Van Schelt said.
Police are accused of taking payoffs from the barras bravas, while also enjoying the extra income from stadium fees and overtime.
Meanwhile, club directors also use the barras bravas to their own advantage, either to win internal elections or put pressure on managers and players they want to get rid of.
Soccer is so popular that it can serve as a stepping stone for political careers. That is the case with Mauricio Macri, president of Boca Juniors, who is expected to be a candidate in the country's presidential elections next year.
By law, clubs are private non-profit organizations, not subject to public financial scrutiny. "It's a cover," said Ares. "The directors take all the money and the clubs are left with nothing."
The most shocking example is the scandalous sale of all Argentine soccer TV rights until the year 2014, the proceeds of which were pocketed by the club directors and the ill-reputed Argentine Football Association.
Another problem is the number of clubs. Ten of the top 20 clubs are based in Buenos Aires, a city of 1.2-million. Another four clubs play in the greater urban area.
That kind of sporting congestion only lends itself to confrontation. For example, the stadiums of Independiente and Racing Club are only one block apart.
When the two clubs met last month, savage street fighting -- led by the Racing's notorious barras bravas, known as the Imperial Guard -- left one supporter dead and many seriously injured with gunshot wounds.
Only 2 miles down the road are the stadiums of Boca Juniors and River Plate, where another fan died earlier this year.
Stopping the violence with firm police action may be easier than halting the financial bleeding. But analysts say neither will be solved while corruption is tolerated.
"There's always been violence in Argentine soccer," said Clausen. "That's what you get when laws aren't observed."
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