Presidential interest in national soccer is nothing new to us. With so much popular will and attention fixated on national teams, national soccer has long been mixed with executive politicking. The recent World Cup has illustrated this phenomenon more clearly than ever, with notable presidential “arbitrations” occurring in the French, Nigerian, and North Korean football associations in the wake of poor tournament performances.
In few countries, however, have the connections between national soccer and the national government been as politically charged as they are in Argentina. Rarely has any head of state so vocally and explicitly endorsed the national team coach as Argentina’s Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Diego Maradona’s recent departure from the national team has only served to elicit new affirmations of executive support for him and for the continuation of his tenure as national team coach.
The connections between the Kirchners1 and Maradona, while mostly symbolic, are multifaceted. For the Kirchners, who have been associated with Peronism’s left wing since the early 70s, Diego has always seemed a likely ally. Maradona has cultivated years-long friendships with left-leaning figureheads like Fidel Castro, Hugo Chávez and Evo Morales. With his prominent Che Guevara tattoo and his anti-imperialist discourse thrown into the mix, Maradona’s ideological orientation has made him a sympathetic figure for the Argentine and the global left. While Maradona has never campaigned publicly for the Kirchners, he has repeatedly voiced his support for their social and economic objectives.
Perhaps Maradona’s most significant connection to the Kirchners has been his recent endorsement of their “Fútbol Para Todos” broadcasting deal. In 2009 the Asociación del Fútbol Argentino (AFA) moved to sell the broadcasting rights for Argentine league games, then under contract with the media giant Grupo Clarín, to the Argentine national government. Named “Fútbol Para Todos” (“Soccer for Everyone”), this $150-million move has allowed all top-flight Argentine league games to be broadcast on public television rather than cable and on-demand.2 Denounced by some as a cynical political agreement between the Kirchners and AFA president Julio Humberto Grondona, Fútbol Para Todos served—rather unexpectedly—to hitch the fortunes of the AFA to a most polemic star: the Kirchner-Fernánadez administration. Because the political decisions of the Kirchners have in recent years produced a polarizing effect in Argentina, many Argentines view the Kirchner-AFA-Maradona axis with deep suspicion.
Certain sectors of the Argentine media have had a central role in rallying public opinion against the Kirchners. In the immediate wake of Fútbol Para Todos, political criticism of the Fernández administration in the various arms of Grupo Clarín media reached a crescendo from which it has yet to descend. Simultaneously, Clarín’s powerful sports media—which includes the influential sports daily Olé, the sports channel TyC Sports, and the sports section of the widely-read Clarín newspaper—heightened their criticism of Maradona, the AFA, and the Argentine national team. Indeed, among Maradona’s many critics during his two-year stint as coach are the reporters and sports writers for Grupo Clarín media outlets, whose comments have been among the most caustic and unrelenting. Argentina’s emphatic World Cup exit against Germany last month served to rekindle the flames of vilification that had been burning bright during Argentina’s fraught qualifying campaign. And as Argentina continues to be polarized along social and political lines, the AFA—with or without Maradona—will continue to be at the center of a heated political battle that goes all the way to the top. To be continued…
1 The husband of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Néstor Kirchner, preceded her as president and continues to be a highly influential political figure.
2 Grupo Clarín, for its part, essentially found itself forcibly stripped of its broadcasting rights and has sued the AFA for breach of contract.