How Julio Grondona changed the landscape of Argentine football forever

How Julio Grondona changed the landscape of Argentine football forever

In June 2014, prior to the World Cup’s grand opening ceremony in Brazil, Julio Humberto Grondona spoke to the German Press Agency. “When I leave FIFA, it will be to go to the cemetery.” The following month, less than three weeks after witnessing his countrymen lose the World Cup final, the Argentine was true to his word, passing away aged 82 following a heart attack.

Grondona was laid to rest in the family plot of an Avellaneda burial ground, one his childhood home overlooked. During four decades of football governance, the man known as Don Julio was at the heart of the good, the bad and the ugly both at home and abroad.

Grondona was born in September 1931, growing up during the Década Infame, a particularly turbulent period in Argentina’s history, one synonymous with coup d’états and economic peril. He was briefly on River Plate’s books as a youngster, before a short spell in the lower leagues. Realising he wasn’t going to make millions from kicking a ball, Grondona took over the family hardware store, which did indeed make him relatively wealthy. Then, in 1956, the 25-year-old and his brother, Héctor, founded Arsenal Fútbol Club in Sarandí, a district of Avellaneda in Greater Buenos Aires. 

In 1976, Grondona was elected president of Independiente, the club who made history by winning four successive Copa Libertadores titles in the early part of the decade. Although further continental silverware eluded the club during their new president’s three-year tenure, they did win the Nacional in 1977 and 1978.

In 1979, as Grondona’s star continued to rise within the domestic game, he was elected head of the Argentine Football Association (AFA), a year after La Albiceleste became world champions. With the backing of Admiral Lacoste, a member of Argentina’s ruling military junta, Grondona succeeded David Bracuto of Huracán, the man who appointed César Luis Menotti and oversaw World Cup glory. 

Grondona headed the AFA from 1979 to his death in 2014, with some incredible highs and equally depressing lows. The national team reached three World Cup finals under his watchful gaze, all ironically against Germany, winning in 1986 but losing in 1990 and 2014. Olympic medals, including two golds, were won at Atlanta 1996, Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008. Incredibly, five under-20 World Youth Championships, later called the FIFA under-20 World Cup, were won between 1995 and 2007.

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On the surface, given that prior to 1978 Argentina was a relatively minor player on the international scene, Grondona’s reign should perhaps represent somewhat of a golden period. However, the generation that dominated youth football between 1995 and 2008 should have lifted at least one senior World Cup or Copa América title to quantify their brilliance. Sadly the production line has now ground to a halt due to, amongst many factors, a lack of direction and finance at the very top level. The international titles and high-profile failures only tell half the story of Grondona’s reign.

Grondona’s time with the AFA has been inextricably intertwined with the career of Diego Maradona and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the pair shared an uneasy, love-hate relationship. “We were both very hot-headed, Julio and I, but we always ended up understanding each other,” wrote the player in his 2004 autobiography El Diego.

Grondona’s election year coincided with the 1979 World Youth Championships in Japan, in which a young Diego Maradona destroyed the field en route to lifting the trophy for Argentina. He repeated the trick at senior level in Mexico seven years later, captaining La Albiceleste to the World Cup, yet he clashed with Grondona in the aftermath due to the withholding of bonus payments relating to the tournament.

Maradona, playing for Napoli at the time, met Grondona in Rome in March 1987 to iron out the issues, insisting that his gripe wasn’t about money and more about his captaincy being respected and standing up for his teammates. Eventually, a small payment for each player was agreed.

Maradona was apoplectic with rage following the 1990 World Cup final, in which Argentina lost to West Germany by a goal to nil. Not merely typical post-defeat blues, the number 10 was convinced that the tournament destiny had been pre-determined, and thus refused to shake the hand of tFIFA president João Havelange. Maradona was annoyed that Grondona, who joined FIFA’s executive committee in 1988, hadn’t backed his national team. “When we had the final stolen from us he wasn’t able to lift a finger,” wrote Maradona in his autobiography, announcing his first international retirement soon after.

The pair clashed again in April 1992 when Maradona was serving a 15-month worldwide ban after testing positive for cocaine. Believing it fell outside of FIFA’s jurisdiction, Maradona organised a benefit match for friend and former River Plate striker Juan Gilberto Funes, who died two months prior aged just 26.

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Football’s governing body applied pressure to the AFA for Maradona not to play despite the fact that he was, naturally, a huge draw for the game, which was intended to raise money for Funes’ family in a time of severe need. Grondona failed to back his own men and, in kowtowing to FIFA, drew the ire of Maradona. He doubled down on the international retirement announced following Italia 90, declaring: “While Grondona remains president of the AFA, I shall never return to the national squad.”

Maradona was famously sent home in disgrace following a failed drug test after victory over Nigeria in Boston at the 1994 World Cup. The player, who always professed his innocence and claimed his positive sample was down to naivety rather than a calculated desire to cheat, once again felt a lack of support from his national federation president. “Later I felt he wasn’t able to defend me the way I would have liked,” wrote Maradona in his autobiography.

Despite the ups and downs between the pair, their relationship continued following Maradona’s transition from the pitch to the dugout when, in October 2008, El Diego was appointed manager of the national team. The next 18 months would produce depressing lows, with a sprinkling of memorable highs. An embarrassing 6-1 defeat to Bolivia in La Paz in World Cup qualifying was sugar-coated by Martín Palermo’s unforgettable last-gasp goal in a rain-soaked El Monumental, which caused an impromptu belly-slide on the wet turf by Maradona as a way of celebration.

After qualifying by the skin of their teeth, Argentina were unceremoniously dumped out of the World Cup, thrashed 4-0 by eventual champions Germany in the quarter-finals. Despite the poor performances, Maradona was apparently due to be retained, a four-year contract in the offing. However, the stubborn Maradona demanded to keep his entire backroom staff, something which the AFA’s executive committee refused to agree to. His expired contract was not renewed and Maradona, perhaps understandably, felt betrayed by his federation.

By the time of Grondona’s death in 2014, time had clearly not healed old wounds. The usually loquacious Maradona was uncharacteristically tight-lipped, stating on Argentine talk-show Infama that he would only partake in a minute’s silence out of respect for Grondona’s grandchildren. When pressed on the matter, he simply said: “Nothing else. This subject is closed, cancelled, finished.”

On the home front, Grondona’s has overseen an alarming decline of the national leagues, creating an all-too-familiar tale of a system designed to protect a handful of powerful clubs over the interests of the many. The bizarre, complicated and convoluted “promedios” system was officially introduced in 1983, deciding relegation based on performance over a three-year period. The idea was designed to offer the big clubs protection against relegation, allowing them to recover from a bad season by performing well in the other two. Ironically, and unthinkably, River Plate were relegated in 2011 by this method, despite finishing fourth and ninth in the two preceding championships.

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The constant tinkering with the structure of the leagues has exacerbated the weakening of the domestic game. August 1990 saw the birth of the Apertura and Clausura tournaments, effectively slicing the regular season in half to create two champions. Whilst the six-month championships allowed more teams to taste success, it only heightened the culture of short-termism endemic in the Argentine game. Many teams failed to look further than six months into the future, sacking coaches after one poor tournament and being forced into selling prize assets following a successful one.

The 2015 Primera División, named after Julio Grondona in homage to the former AFA president, fittingly contained a preposterous 30 teams. With a cynical hat on, this was another measure that can be seen to protect the interests of the bigger clubs, knowing full well they are unlikely to fail given such a bloated, weakened field. There are steps in place to reduce this number to a more manageable amount, with 2018/19’s line-up featuring just 26 sides, but the needless changes do nothing to dispel the idea that mayhem rules supreme within AFA HQ, a culture cultivated during more than 40 years of Grondona rule.

It was his links with FIFA, however, that brought Grondona the highest levels of infamy. Aside from his vice-like grip on his national game, the Argentine was highly embedded in the FIFA structures from 1988 onwards, counting on a close and personal relationship with Sepp Blatter for many years.

Just as in his role as head of Argentina’s FA, Grondona was linked with his fair share of troublesome stories. In return for his 26-year service, FIFA repaid him by stabbing him in the back less than a year after his death, conveniently implicating him in a scandal despite the fact he was now unable to defend his corner.

As part of his role as chair of FIFA’s finance committee, Grondona was supposed to have misused $10m earmarked for an African diaspora legacy programme at the time of the 2010 World Cup. The payment was sent to disgraced former CONCACAF president and high-ranking FIFA official Jack Warner, as well as Chuck Blazer, the Caribbean and Central American federation’s general secretary, both of whom were subsequently banned for life from all football activity.

In June 2011, at a FIFA congress when discussions turned to the 2018 World Cup voting process, the Argentine called the English delegation “liars” and “pirates”, the latter a reference to the sensitive Falklands/Malvinas issue. Regardless of his intentions for doing so, and proving that birds of a feather do flock together, it’ll come as no surprise that Grondona voted for Russia and Qatar to host the World Cup, two countries heavily linked with corrupt and inhumane practices themselves. 

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Highlighting that the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree, Humberto Grondona, his son and a technical advisor to FIFA, admitted to the illegal selling of World Cup tickets in 2014. Operation Jules Rimet was an investigation by Brazilian police that sought to uncover a multi-million-pound ticket touting ring, alleged to run deep within the FIFA corridors. Readers can draw their own conclusions as to who was involved in the scandal.

Even in death, Grondona couldn’t escape the ineptitude from the house that he built. To appoint his successor, the AFA held elections, which returned the result of a 38-38 draw between Marcelo Tinelli, the candidate for change, and Luis Segura, the continuity man. The bizarre thing about the election, however, was that only 75 officials were given a vote. It doesn’t take a mathematician to surmise that 38 plus 38 does not equal 75. In an embarrassing twist, Segura, who was eventually triumphant, was later forced to step down due to fraud charges relating to television broadcast rights.

Today, chaos still reigns supreme in a national team set-up plagued by poor infrastructure, the players often operating under amateurish conditions and dragged around the planet for meaningless, money spinning friendlies. Just as Maradona felt alienated by Grondona on several occasions, Lionel Messi has also grown tired of the federation and retired once already from international football. Upsetting two of the best players the world has ever produced is no mean feat but something well within the capabilities of the AFA. 

Football is a reflection of society, not the other way around, therefore it is hard to entirely pin the blame on Grondona with regards to the rampant rise of the barra brava and continued violence in Argentine fan culture. Yet this cancer on the national game spawned during his tenure.

Argentina’s 20th-century history has been characterised by a lack of democratic structures, it’s most popular and well-known politicians dogged by allegations of corruption. Grondona cannot be blamed for ills deeply embedded in society such as these, but nor does that mean he had to embrace them as wholeheartedly as he allegedly did.

Whilst external factors and economics have contributed – especially with regards to the drain of talent – the league has dramatically reduced in quality since 1979 when Grondona ascended to the position of AFA president.

There should perhaps be begrudging respect for a man who ascended to the top positions in both domestic and international football. Yet any achievements should always be tinged with the sadness that the man was only seemingly motivated by feathering his own nest and boosting his ego, rather than for the benefit of the game at home and abroad. Don Julio, as he’s known as in Argentina, is a fitting title for the Godfather-like figure who is viewed by some in an affectionate way, but also one feared for his ruthless nature, with a penchant for living outside of the law.

By Dan Williamson @winkveron

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