Thursday marked the sixth anniversary of the passing of ‘Don’ Julio Humberto Grondona, the eternal strongman of the Argentine Football Association (AFA) who, during a spell in power lasting more than three decades, for better or worse, left an indelible mark on Argentine and South American football. The Avellaneda-born executive bequeathed the most complicated of legacies to the game, which is still being disputed as the battle over his memory continues.
One cannot help wondering how the no-nonsense Don Julio would have managed the current scenario of pandemic and forced stoppage. If this immensely complex, flexible figure could be said to have possessed any ideological commitment it was that the ball, no matter what the situation, must never stop rolling; summed up by his infamous motto, todo pasa (“everything happened”), which beamed out from the gold ring that was never missing from his left hand. If the sport did halt, it was on his terms, like on that afternoon where, unable to get a satellite feed in order to watch his beloved Arsenal de Sarandí from the Grondona family ranch he ordered kick-off to be delayed until he could resolve those technical difficulties. He was otherwise adamant that the show must always go on and demonstrated an immense capacity for organisation, as well as the darker arts of football management, on a continental and indeed global scale.
During his 35 years as the King of Viamonte Street, Grondona held onto power through a military dictatorship, five democratically elected presidents of varying political colours and a host of economic crises, including the meltdown of December 2001 which saw five men hold the office of president in the space of a week. Throughout it all his position was unassailable, and as the years went by he expanded his empire to include effective control, alongside his now-disgraced Brazilian counterpart Ricardo Teixeira and Paraguay's Nicolás Leoz, of CONMEBOL and eventually FIFA, where he acted as Sepp Blatter's vice-president and confidant. A formidable composite of Vito Corleone, King Midas and Keyser Soze, no aspect of football, from television contracts to the selection of referees, escaped his attention, and while most of his allies later fell to serious corruption charges Grondona died on July 30, 2014, secure in his omnipotent post and free from the ‘FIFAgate’ scandal that only broke when he had left this world.
The stories of his influence have passed into popular legend. The night, for example, when he managed to placate a furious Republic of Ireland, seething after being robbed of a 2010 World Cup place thanks to France star Thierry Henry's handball, by promising them a friendly featuring Lionel Messi which would see all profits (except for Argentina's US$1 million fee) go to the Boys in Green. Barcelona, meanwhile, were similarly reassured by the US$200m insurance policy protecting them from injury to their star in this meaningless match – a policy which, as long-time collaborator Cherquis Biallo admitted to Infobae, “never existed, it was fake.”
Biallo also recalls the hiring by FIFA of famed ex-US Attorney Michael Garcia to root out corruption inside the organisation, and his interview with Don Julio. After berating the prosecutor for not speaking Spanish – “You're from Brooklyn, your name is García, either you're fucking me or you've got no shame,” he was quoted as saying – Grondona refused to provide any information and concluded the interview by asking his interrogator if he was independent. When García responded in the affirmative the strongman exclaimed: “This is my lucky day because, look, I'd brought a cheque for one millon dollars.” The cheque was ripped up in front of the prosecutor, who in his subsequent 2014 report into misdeeds levelled just one charge of an unpaid fine for failing to collaborate with investigations.
There is a logical temptation to revel in the AFA chief's unique character and look back on his reign with nostalgia. But behind the colourful anecdotes is a more damning story. Behind the swagger and posturing on the world stage Argentine football was left in a state of decadence, allowed to rot from within and fall ever further behind its contemporaries in Europe and North America.
Grondona also instituted a system of obedience within the association that was in effect dictatorial, allowing him to commit travesties such as expanding the Primera División to 30 teams just months before his death without even a murmur of opposition. The years following Don Julio have been marked by a chaotic adjustment to his absence, with no few AFA directors attempting to wield his power without the capacity or personality to do so, and the sport continues to suffer accordingly. To take just one example, Grondona was still in power back in 2013 when the first Primera ban on away fans was introduced; since then three men have succeeded him and the league format changed with dizzying regularity, but that prohibition remains untouched.
The fact that Grondona continues to live on in the public's memory and generate such nostalgia is a measure of his towering presence, but equally of the inability of his successors to clean up the undoubted mess left at his passing and effect real change in Argentine football. The shadow of the 'The Godfather’ still looms large and will continue to do so until the day that Viamonte throws off his legacy and creates an AFA that is open to internal dissent and debate – and willing to look at the innumerable problems that continue to blight the national game.