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Applause filled the Salon Blanco as the slender figure entered the room. Photographers’ flashbulbs cracked and whirred, their lenses pulling towards the most powerful man in the country. In the packed crowd, an army of dignitaries strained to meet his gaze. Mauricio Macri smiled contentedly as he was adorned with the presidential sash and baton. Argentina, as the throng erupted into spontaneous cheers, had crowned its latest saviour.
The Casa Rosada, Buenos Aires’ gaudy presidential palace, has seen many coronations over the years. This one, however, felt different. The country was defaulting on its debts, with inflation soaring above 30 percent. Wages and living standards were stagnating, with corruption and scandal dogging the later years of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s presidency.
The electorate demanded change, with 51 percent of them voting to jettison the Perónist dogma that had dominated Argentine politics for generations. “A new time is coming, a time of dialogue, a time of teamwork,” Macri announced in his inauguration speech. The words were the culmination of an ascent that had been as smooth as it was calculated. That day, in front of the watching millions, was the final step in a journey that had begun in the La Boca district some 20 years prior.
Four thousand, four hundred and fifteen. That’s how many votes this wiry son of an industrialist secured in the Boca Juniors leadership elections of 1995. Macri, intense and thin with an aristocratic calm, boasted an impressive resumé that seemed well-suited to address the club’s longstanding malaise. The son of influential magnate Franco Macri, Mauricio had studied at Columbia and Wharton Business Schools before taking up an executive role in the family business. An avowed Boquense, his decision to personally pay the salary of manager César Luis Menotti had already given him some profile amongst the club’s support. Now he looked to assume control of an institution that had changed remarkably little since its inception in 1905.
“Early in his tenure, Macri had set two main goals for his administration,” wrote the Harvard Business Review in a 2008 case study. “To remodel La Bombonera to hold more club members and modernise the existing facilities, and to create La Cantera, a youth system destined to become a breeding ground for exceptional players to nurture Boca’s first division team going forward.”
Macri delivered on his first goal within a year. La Bombonera underwent a series of renovations, with a new façade created alongside a raft of corporate boxes. “For the first time, Boca had a clear business plan and that helped them out of debt,” wrote Jonathan Wilson in Angels With Dirty Faces. “The club introduced such innovations as telephone service centres, a decentralised ticket sales system and a separate section in the stadium where companies could rent boxes; there was, for the first time, an effort to maximise revenue from members.”
Club expenses, including player and staff salaries, were slashed. Every facet of the organisation was analysed and streamlined; every process interrogated to ensure value for money and minimisation of cost. A dedicated marketing division was set up, seeking to capitalise on the club’s massive appeal by pursuing advertising partnerships and commercial deals. “Boca is a global brand in its own right, and as a result of winning the World Club Championship on three occasions, it is one of the most important clubs in the history of football,” said Orlando Salvestrini, the club’s head of marketing, in an interview with with the International Journal of Sports Marketing and Sponsorship in 2009. “Boca attracts fans from all over Latin America and many of its fans have emigrated overseas in search of a new life.”
Finally, the club was exploiting that depth of feeling. According to the Harvard case study, administrators “had increased sponsorship and licensing revenues from 14 percent of Boca’s £28m budget in 1996 to 20 percent of the club’s £25m budget in 2006”. A club museum was even established, one that continues to attract thousands of paying visitors every year.
Macri’s most crucial achievement, however, was in the formation of La Cantera. Jorge Griffa – who would help mould talents such as Gabriel Batistuta, Gabriel Heinze and Carlos Tevez – was appointed to manage the club’s youngsters, while a dedicated network of scouts trawled the country in search of brilliant prospects. Those deemed good enough were invited to stay at the club’s Casa Amarilla, where they received an intensive footballing education under the watchful eye of Boca coaches.
Macri, being fully aware of the financial reality of the Argentine game, knew that the grooming of potential stars could pay handsome dividends. Indeed, his approach was so successful that, by the end of his reign in 2007, the club had made close to £100m from player sales alone. Whilst the returns from the academy might have been generous in the longer term, Macri displayed typical pragmatism and a healthy disrespect for convention when he established the La Xeneize Investment Fund in 1997.
The stock market was asked to contribute the funds necessary to allow Boca to buy players. Potential investors were promised a slice of any eventual fee, should the talents they help sign be sold on in future. Nolberto Solano, Martín Palermo and Walter Samuel were just some of the names acquired with the help of this external money, with investments repaid handsomely.
Read | Carlos Bianchi and the art of winning the Copa Libertadores
For all of his undoubted business acumen, however, Macri knew that it would mean nothing without a commensurate improvement on the pitch. Boquense supporters had been starved of trophies since winning the Apertura in 1992, and the Bombonera faithful had always cared more about medals than money. One of his first moves, therefore, was to appoint Carlos Bilardo as coach. The high priest of anti-fútbol failed to conjure much in the way of sporting success, though, and when three of his successors also failed to sparkle, Macri’s reputation was coming under question. The next appointment needed to be perfect. The next appointment, as it happened, was Carlos Bianchi.
El Virrey – The Viceroy – had earned his reputation as one of the brightest managers in the country, taking an unfancied Vélez Sarsfield side to consecutive league titles as well as stunning triumphs in the Copa Libertadores and Intercontinental Cup.
He inherited a squad that was blessed with cheaply acquired talent and sparkling youth graduates, including a certain playmaker called Juan Román Riquelme. With this potent mix of prodigies and established stars, Bianchi’s men swept all before them. Three domestic titles were snared between 1998 and 2000, before a sumptuous victory over Palmeiras saw Los Xeneizes capture the first Copa Libertadores of the new millennium.
This staggering feat would be repeated a year later, but not before an even more astonishing victory was earned over Real Madrid in the Intercontinental Cup. By triumphing over Vicente del Bosque’s Galácticos, Boca seemed to announce their arrival on the world stage.“This victory is not only for Boca, but for Argentina,” said Bianchi after the game. Macri, the architect of the club’s lurch towards modernisation, had reached his apotheosis.
It wasn’t all success under his reign, though. Fallouts with Bianchi and Riquelme were common, while the club remained as susceptible to Argentina’s shaky economy as any of the country’s institutions. With a financial crisis threatening to tear the nation apart in the early 2000s, Boca’s debts spiralled. Things got so bad that the president even arranged for the creation of a premium phone line, where fans could ring up to pay a few dollars each in order to keep Riquelme. Despite their best efforts, he was eventually sold to Barcelona.
For the most part, though, Macri’s untrammelled successes at Boca gave him the very thing he craved: a springboard for a political career. In 2005, he established the centre-right party Propuesta Republicana (Republican Proposal), whose emphasis on market deregulation and free trade stood at deliberate odds with the country’s Perónist incumbents. In 2005, Macri stood as the Propuesta candidate in the Buenos Aires Chief of Government elections, defeating the Kirchnerismo candidate Daniel Filmus by a margin of 20 percent in the polls after a run-off. The city, it seemed, was willing to take a chance on a man who had proved his mettle in the sporting arena. If he could turn Boca Juniors into a global behemoth, what was to stop him doing the same for the nation’s capital?
Read | Juan Román Riquelme: the dream comes first
Macri’s machinations were just the latest example of football being exploited for political gain in the country. Kirchner, for example, wasn’t simply being generous when her government introduced the Fútbol Para Todos scheme in 2014. The move, which ensured that all Primera División games were shown free-to-air, also landed a blow on one of her fiercest critics – and the previous TV-rights holders – Grupo Clarín.
Even Juan Perón, arguably the country’s most influential politician of the 20th century, was sensitive to the impact that football had on the Argentine psyche. In 1949 he was heavily involved in the creation of Mundo Deportivo, a sports periodical that aimed to usurp the established El Gráfico. The latter, Perón believed, had been slow to appreciate his various successes.
Political influence hasn’t just been limited to the media, either. When Jorge Videla assumed power in a 1976 coup d’état, he also assumed control of the organisational efforts for the World Cup to be held in Argentina two years later. His junta devoted vast swathes of its budget to the tournament, pouring reams of sweat and pesos into a propaganda effort that he hoped would present the country as a global success. When La Albiceleste eventually won the showpiece event, Videla was quick to ascribe the triumph to the “capacity, courage and discipline” that he believed also underpinned his murderous government.
Macri’s use of football, however, was something of a departure from the Machiavellian norm. Instead of using the game as a propaganda tool, his chairmanship of Boca acted as a microcosm for the changes he wanted to implement nationwide. “I chose [to serve this country] since I had a conscience of the world in which we are. So I dedicated myself to public service,” he told Buzzfeed in 2016. Tellingly, he made no distinction between political and footballing office.
Clear-eyed corporatism and unimpeachable expertise might have been Macri’s trademark, but his tenure at Boca was an iron-clad validation. After a short but successful spell in municipal office, he announced his candidacy for the 2015 presidential elections on the kind of reformist and business-friendly mandate he had announced at Boca 20 years earlier. Macri was selected as the candidate for the Cambiemos (Let’s Change) coalition, facing off against the Kirchnerist runner Daniel Sciolo. The curtailment of profligate spending, coupled with promises to attract foreign investment and relax currency controls, were part of a wider pledge to make the country a global economic player.
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Quite simply, Macri aimed to “make Argentina normal”, to escape the global preconception that it was forever teetering on the edge of economic ruin or populist revolt.
The electoral ground was fertile. Kirchner’s presidency had been ravaged by cronyism and mismanagement, whilst poverty levels had risen remorselessly. “The previous government was based on lies,” Macri told Buzzfeed. “They altered all of the official statistics, artificially suppressed inflation [and] the exchange rate.”
Written-off as an outsider for much of the campaign, Macri stunned observers by securing just over half of the general vote. Scioli, it seemed, was not enough of a radical for an electorate that yearned for a new approach. For the first time in decades, Argentina elected a candidate who was neither radical nor Perónist.
Three years into his presidency, however, Macri’s ambitious reform agenda stalled. In August 2018, he pleaded with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for the early release of funds from a $50bn deal, citing the country’s inability to deal with its debt obligations the following year. Inflation is still at a perilously high level, with the president failing to attract the massive investments promised in his original mandate.
The release of the Panama Papers in 2016 also dented his credibility, with reports suggesting that his family had secretly benefitted from companies registered in the Bahamas. Macri’s links to Fleg Trading and Kagemusha SA had not been declared at any point during his time in local or national office. “I know there are people who are concerned about the accusations,” he was forced to insist in a televised address to the country. “I have acted in accordance with the law, I have told the truth and I have nothing to hide.”
To date, no non-Perónist president has been able to survive a full-term. It remains to be seen whether Macri’s astonishing successes at Boca Juniors can be replicated on this most unforgiving of stages. Transforming a football club is one thing, but transforming an entire country is a whole other ball game.
By Christopher Weir @chrisw45