BUENOS AIRES // This is the week that Argentina football fans usually relish - the days leading up to the start of the season. Not this time. It seems that supporters in one of the world's most fanatical football countries will have to live without what, for many, is their reason for being. For a few days, a week, a month. Nobody knows. Huge combined debts, estimated at 700 million pesos (Dh672m) for the 20 top-flight clubs, have forced the Argentine Football Association (AFA) to scrap the August 14 start of the season for all divisions. AFA officials have been scrambling for more than a week to find a solution to the crisis.
"The only solution to the problem is money," AFA president Julio Grondona said. "The institutions are spending more than they are taking in." Television rights holders have turned down appeals to pay more, and the government have rejected internet gambling as another revenue source to help out clubs. Nobody has suggested there is an immediate solution to the unprecedented mess. "If there is no football, I'll die," said Ruben Tuci, a 58-year-old Boca Juniors fan. "I get so fired up waiting for the weekends to come so I can go to see my beloved Boca."
Most of the blame is being directed at club directors for lavish spending and poor accounting, and the AFA leadership. "I'm tired of the mismanagement of the club directors," said Delia Rosales, a 32-year-old fan of San Lorenzo. "They are the cause of all of this." Grondona is widely reported to want to tear up the contract of the largest TV rights holders, Torneos y Competencias (TyC), who have a contract that runs through to 2014. The total package for all rights holders is reported to be 268m pesos, and TyC are by far the largest.
It has been widely reported that the AFA want to transfer the rights to state-run government Canal 7, who would pay about 600m pesos with the indebted clubs gaining a windfall. Of course, TyC are threatening court action if this happens. "What AFA are asking for, we can't do," TyC president Marcelo Bombau said. "Besides, we have a signed contract until 2014. This is like if someone rents an apartment for 2,000 pesos, and after he's told: "Now, give me 4,000."
TyC are part of the media group who run the Clarin newspaper, which has been at odds with the government of president Cristina Fernandez and her husband Nestor Kirchner, the former president. Luis Segura, president of the club Argentinos, said a meeting is set for today to decide if the suspension will continue. Reports suggest the TV contract is sure to be a the centre of the talks. "It worries me because not having football starting in this country is something dramatic," Argentina legend and national coach Diego Maradona said last week.
The world economic slump has hit Argentine football hard. The country has been a traditional market for rich European clubs, which regularly buy its talent. However, most of Argentina's top players - the likes of Lionel Messi at Barcelona and Carlos Tevez at Manchester City - are already playing for the biggest clubs in Europe. Argentine clubs received US$150million (Dh551m) for selling players in 2008, but that figure this year is reported to be $34m, although clubs are still buying players - or trying to work out deals despite the crisis.
"This is incredible. It's like a science fiction film. The clubs have a rotting corpse in the room, and they're out shopping," said Sergio Marchi, the secretary general of the players' union who are fighting clubs to give their members back-pay. Despite his criticism, Marchi also sounded a hopeful note. "This crisis could bring a major catastrophe, or an opportunity to make things better," he said.