The rise of the Defensa y Justicia conspiracy theory – focused on the work and influence of powerful agent Christian Bragarnik – shows us it’s just a normal close race for the championship title in Argentina.
The Superliga has been interrupted by international commitments right in the middle of its final straight, leaving just two games outstanding before a champion will be crowned and four unlucky teams drop down to the wilderness of the Nacional B. Everything is still to play for, and the rush at the end of the season has been accompanied by another staple of each Argentine campaign: controversies and conspiracy theories by the boatload.
Depending on one’s football sympathies, for example, title challengers Defensa y Justicia are either the pluckiest of underdogs from the depths of Greater Buenos Aires mounting a heroic fight for glory, or the most nefarious representation of big business, mafiosi practices and corruption ever to be seen at the top of the Primera table. The side, coached by ex-Argentina number two Sebastián Beccacece, suffered a damaging reverse at the weekend but remain the only team capable of toppling leaders Racing Club at the summit, trailing by four points ahead of these last two vital weekends.
It is the first time the Halcón have been even near to contention for a major trophy in the top flight, a distinction which has logically won them the affections of many neutrals. Others, though – particularly the Racing faithful – are wont to see a sinister side to this classic underdog story. For pulling the strings, they say, is one of Argentine football’s most powerful figures, as mysterious as he is ubiquitous.
Christian Bragarnik is the man behind the curtain, the portly Wizard of Oz whose interests seem to extend infinitely across the sport. The Buenos Aires native rose from stacking shelves in a supermarket and running a video rental store, when his professional playing career failed to pan out, to become perhaps the country’s most powerful agent, looking after the interests of scores of top stars and coaches. He is especially active in the offices of Defensa y Justicia, a fact that has local conspiracy theorists brimming with indignation. That narrative has Bragarnik showering money on ‘his’ team’s opponents to throw games in Defensa’s favour, while simultaneously encouraging Racing’s rivals to derail their own championship run and indulging in no end of shady deals in order to bolster the Halcón’s playing roster.
While Bragarnik’s influence on Defensa is extensive, he denies that his role is anything more than that of a silent partner with a penchant for directing his clients to Florencio Varela.
“I came to Argentina with modern methods to propose, looking at lines of coaches with attacking characteristics,” he explained in a recent interview with Olé. “That was meant to achieve an improvement in the club’s playing style. I am one of those most responsible for the arrival of players to Defensa.
“It has been said that I am their administrator, or their owner, that there are third-party Mexican teams involved. It has never been the case. I just looked for a team in Argentina to show a working model. That model ended up being important for Defensa and for me. It is tough for people in this country to accept success like that. They are always looking for strange things. Things that don’t exist.”
Indeed, the theory that Bragarnik is masterminding a rigged title in Defensa’s favour quickly falls apart when one considers that Racing coach Eduardo Coudet, goalkeeper Gabriel Arias and several other key Academia players also belong to the agent’s huge stable of clients. Any lingering doubts should have been buried once and for all last Sunday, moreover, when Defensa went down to relegation battlers Patronato – and thanks to two goals that were questionable, at best.
Stories of crooked referees, teams playing for defeat and others handed juicy incentives to give their all are a traditional part of any tight title race, fodder for idle conversations and the least scrupulous corners of the sporting media. In 2019, of course, they are given extra fuel by the massive reach of social media, which ensures any halfbaked theory of foul play can cross the country three times within a matter of minutes.
That endless exposure, however, does not make the claims any more accurate. Fans of Racing, Defensa y Justicia and any other Superliga must stop looking for ghosts and simply enjoy one of the most engaging title races in recent years, between two teams who have lost just four games combined this season and have proved themselves head and shoulders above the rest of the division.