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Cry for Argentine Football

Current league hiatus par for the course in troubled country
by Jack Ferdon - 2003

Argentina is well accustomed to fiascoes. Throughout its history--and especially in the past two years--the nation has witnessed tragic levels of incompetence in its government, its military, and its courts. (And don't forget disusting yayo-fiend Diego Maradona.) Now even the beautiful game--as it is organized and run in the country--offers little in the way of refuge to those Argentines looking for ninety minutes of escape from their troubles.

The Argentine Football Association recently suspended league play for two weeks. The suspension was a response to an August 31 match in Buenos Aires between Boca Juniors and Chacarita where violence in the stands caused the game to be stopped and left 71 people injured.

The hiatus is only the latest blow inflicted upon the Argentine soccer fan in a savage beating that predates even the country's massive economic calamities. It's enough to make fans yearn for not just the dashing, "Hand of God" Maradona of the '86 World Cup, but even the sniffling, waddling Maradona of ten years ago.

As far back as 2000, the country's teams were regularly missing payroll--leading to a number of player strikes--and had amassed $100 million in debt to the government. This left the insolvent league in no position to weather a storm when, in December of 2001, a veritable Nor'easter hit. After a four year economic slump, the Argentine government came perilously close to defaulting on its nearly $70 billion debt to private investors. Then-President De la Rosa cut salaries and hiked taxes in an effort to ward off such a catastrophe, but just started another when outraged citizens rioted in the streets of Buenos Aires. Argentina avoided default by securing more foreign loans from the IMF and such, but the cost was the adoption of more austerity measures including freezing bank accounts and depegging the peso from the dollar, causing billions in lost wealth. In the following year, unemployment reached nearly 30%.

The crisis left the AFA $200 million in the red and stuck with contracts that required it to pay coaches and players in dollars even after the peso had been floated (and sunk). But Argentines were determined to see soccer continue. Edouarde Duhalde, De la Rosa's replacement, stepped in in January of 2002 and cut ticket prices for league games in half, to about seven bucks and, to the relief of many, the games went on.

Said AFA boss Julio Grondona in a New York Times article, "Football must go ahead. It is the Viagra of the Argentines."

But in the summer of '02, Argentines--to extend (no pun intended) the preceding metaphor--got the all-time worst case of blue balls when their widely-favored national team failed to make it out of the first round at the World Cup with a disappointing loss to England (a rival in soccer and war for Argentina) and an unlucky tie with Sweden.

The national team has continued its struggles this year, as a recent 2-2 draw with Chile in '06 cup qualifying left most Argentines underwhelmed. The likes of Crespo, Zanetti, Ortega, and Aimar shrugged and returned to their rich clubs and rich contracts in England, Italy, and Spain. (Argentina can expect to see more of its talent skip town as Carlos Alberto Tevez and Clemente Rodriguez of Boca have caught the eye of European clubs and Boca's owners are, as always, in need of cash.)

And now soccer has come to a halt in the country. Argentina has always had trouble with barrabravos (hooligans) and violence at its soccer matches, but it has escalated recently as an increasing number are jobless and poor and more likely to commit crimes. Current president Nestor Kirchner plans to do something about it, saying, "It cannot be that a stadium is turned into a field of battle."

Will he succeed in saving soccer in Argentina? Let's put it this way: Argentina missed a $3 billion dollar payment to the IMF thus week, the biggest default in the loan's history.

Where have you gone, Diego Maradona?


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