Player Strike Lays Bare Soccer Crisis in Messi's Argentina

  • Argentine players vote to strike over unpaid salaries
  • News is latest blow following corruption and tax scandals

Lionel Messi in action during the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and Real Sporting de Gijon at Camp Nou Stadium on March 1, 2017 in Barcelona.

Source: fotopress via Getty Images

In Lionel Messi and Diego Maradona, Argentina has produced two of the greatest soccer players of all time. Yet, for the rank and file players, the sport’s management is such a basket case that athletes have finally had enough: they’re going on strike.

The decision, announced by the players union Thursday night following months of unpaid salaries, means the soccer-mad nation and two-time World Cup winner, won’t have any games for the foreseeable future. The new season was supposed to start Feb. 3, but was delayed because of the crisis.

“We’re going to refuse to play until the players’ salaries are paid,” Sergio Marchi, president of the Argentine Soccer Players Union, said on Telam. “The AFA should focus on controlling the clubs so that this doesn’t happen. I don’t understand AFA’s behavior, we’ve been waiting for an answer.”

The strike is the latest calamity to befall the Argentine Football Association, which is being managed by a group installed by soccer’s governing body FIFA. Its former president, Julio Grondona, who died in 2014, is suspected by U.S. authorities of being at the heart of the international kick-back and bribery scandal that rocked soccer in May 2015.

The crisis has even affected Newell’s Old Boys, Lionel Messi’s beloved team, where the five-time world’s best player trained before leaving for Spain. The team only last month agreed to pay players salaries due since November.

TV Rights

The problems stem from President Mauricio Macri’s decision to scrap a signature agreement by his populist predecessor Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner in 2009 under which the state paid 11 billion pesos ($700 million) for the rights to air soccer games over the next seven years.

It’s been a difficult start of the year for Macri, who is besieged by unions complaining about high inflation and an economy that’s struggling to emerge from recession. He faces a national teachers strike on March 6 after salary negotiations stalled. Argentina’s main unions have called for a march in downtown Buenos Aires on March 7 in what may become the biggest display of public discontent faced by Macri since he was elected president in 2015.

Macri, who before entering politics served as president of the soccer club Boca Juniors, on Thursday announced a final payment of 350 million pesos ($23 million), which the clubs said wasn’t enough to cover costs. Local media have reported U.S.-based ESPN, Turner/Fox and Grupo Mediapro are considering buying the rights.

The Argentine tax agency in October asked the police to investigate nine soccer clubs that it claims owe more than $9 million in unpaid taxes. Special concessions to clubs haven resulted in a gap of 1.3 billion pesos ($85.7 million) in social security contributions for its employees since 2003.

Grondona led Argentine soccer for nearly four decades until his death. The depth of the chaos in the country’s soccer federation was underlined during the election to succeed him. A vote to choose between the two candidates ended in a 38-38 stalemate even though only 75 votes were supposed to have been cast.

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