Well folks, El Bolso is here again. I was hoping to be celebrating the start of another Uruguayan League season in this post. I was hoping that, because I am a very naive person. The season has not started yet, 2 and a half weeks past the original date. I can’t even talk about how Uruguayan teams are doing in the Copa Sudamericana, because none of them are still in it (settle down Wanderers fans, I know you actually won your first round bracket). So what is there to talk about? How about corruption and shenanigans? How about a walkout threat by the most successful national team generation in 60 years? How about it, fans? Let’s get to it!
Turn Back the Clock (Again)
Let’s begin with the fact that this year’s Uruguayan League will be only 6 months long and will feature only a single game round robin and no end of season playoff (unless there’s a tie for first place). Why is this happening? Well, the Uruguayan Football Association (AUF in Spanish) wants to shift the annual league schedule to coincide with the calendar year. So after this tournament, there will be an Apertura that is supposed to begin sometime in late January or early February (but will actually start in late February or March, because shenanigans), and a Clausura that will happen over the second half of the year. The end of year playoff will then happen right before Christmas vacation.
They are doing this, because how the hell should I know? I assume it has something to do with money. Those of you who follow Uruguayan soccer closely (hello dad, uncle Pepe) know that this is the way things were until 2005, when AUF held a 6 month league to get on the European calendar (August to June). I guess that didn’t work out, because we’re going back again. I’m sure that the European style schedule is the reason why typical non-Nacional, non-Peñarol game attendance hovers around the high double figures. This will fix everything!
The Early Bird is Clearly not Uruguayan
Anyway, let’s move on. So the rump league was approved and scheduled beginning on the weekend of August 6th. Hey, that was a long time ago! What are the standings looking like? Pffffft. Silly Americans, there are no standings. The league has in fact not begun yet. The first round of games is now set for this coming weekend, 3 full weeks later. However, I have to give AUF points for creativity. See, usually the league gets delayed by a week or 2, and it happens because there are a handful of teams that have not paid their debts in full (and by debts, I mean that they’re behind on player and coach salaries from the previous season). Teams have to be debt free by the start of the tournament or risk being unaffiliated, so a week before everyone panics and AUF moves the date back to allow clubs to come clean. It’s messy, but we’re used to it by now, and it beats having a 6 team league because everyone else is in debtor’s prison.
This time though, oh boy! This time the Minister of the Interior (the guy in charge of cops and such) said he would not allow police inside stadiums until AUF made good on an agreement to beef up security measures. Basically it boils down to facial recognition equipment. About 5 years ago, AUF agreed to install a camera system to identify violent fans (so that they could then be banned from future games) in some of the stadiums. Not all the stadiums, because they can’t afford that. Of course, they in fact have no money at all, because corruption (we’ll get to that in the next section), so they’ve been hemming and hawing ever since, and the government finally has had enough. Thus, the league start was delayed, because staging games without police protection would be insanity (I mean, look at how bad things get with police in the stands).
Finally, a compromise was reached: AUF would establish a process for obtaining the cameras (part of that was making Nacional and Peñarol pay to outfit their own fields, because again, AUF is broke), as well as firm deadlines for following through, and deliver a written copy to the Ministry for approval. Basically, they put their cameras on lay away, but as long as they agree to keep putting some on it each month, all is well. The document was delivered on August 10th, and the league will hopefully begin this weekend, with cops in the stands. Hooray!
The Other Shoe Drops
So now that the club picture has been cleared up (get it? because of the cameras… oh never mind), it’s time for AUF to fuck around with the national team, amirite? Ask and ye shall receive, fans! We’re in the middle of the World Cup Qualifiers, the team is doing well, and key games against Argentina and Paraguay are coming up, so clearly some shenanigans are in order. Presto! Earlier this week, a group of regular national team players got together and forwarded an official offer from Nike (which represents 19 of the 23 players reserved for the next qualifiers) to AUF for the right to equip the national team.
See, the current contract is held by Puma, and this is where it gets complicated. the Puma agreement was negotiated through Tenfield, which is basically the Barzini family of South American soccer. Tenfield owns the TV rights to the Uruguayan League and the national team (which is another source of much argument these days) and AUF agreed to let them “help” negotiate the equipment deal, for which they get a hefty cut of the rights fees. A renewal has been in the works for quite some time, but it stalled when AUF executives asked that they be allowed to speak directly with PUMA representatives (while still guaranteeing Tenfield their cut of the deal, mind you). They were rebuffed, so no new contract has been signed. Now Nike is swooping in with the support of the players, who have been lobbying hard for years to make the process more transparent. This was their big move.
Let’s talk numbers: Nike has offered 24 million dollars over 7 years, an average of 3.5 million per. They also threw in some perks, like agreeing to outfit the women’s, futsal, amd beach soccer national teams, as well as all youth divisions. PUMA’s renewal offer is for 5 million over 2 years (they will only provide gear for the men’s team), but Tenfield gets half of that, so the net to AUF and the clubs would be 1.25 million per year. Slam dunk, right? Not so fast. The AUF board met this weekend to consider the Nike offer (it’s rumored to come with a tight deadline), and promptly delayed any decision until tonight (Tuesday), because no one can do basic math.
Just kidding! The clubs are trying to find a way to turn Nike down without looking like Tenfield puppets. See, Tenfield came into the Uruguayan soccer scene about 2 decades ago as a player agent conglomerate, handing out cash and roster spots in exchange for certain favors (like playing go-between in illegal international transfers), or just to encourage economic dependency. Their influence is finally starting to fade thanks to increased transparency, but they still have plenty of clout, mostly because lots of clubs are up to their eyeballs in Tenfield debt, and can only continue to function thanks to unofficial loans or gifts from the firm. I’m not saying it’s an unhealthy relationship, but Nils Bjurman just called in to say this was shady as shit.
So Tenfield has let it be known that AUF is free to go with whoever they want for this contract, but unless Puma wins, all of the extracurricular cash infusions to clubs will end. Remember what I said earlier about clubs having to cancel debts at the last minute? Where do you think that money usually comes from? The vote is all set to take place, and the clubs have come up with a novel idea: they won’t vote for Puma or against Nike; instead they will vote for a public bidding process. They’re hoping Nike will then take back their offer, and Puma and Tenfield will be free to rig yet another process and come out on top, and this way no one can be accused of impropriety. It’s a win-win!
Well, except for the national team players. See, one of the key points in the original 1998 contract was the transfer of the player image rights to Tenfield. The company gets to exploit player likenesses for no additional cost, with the players themselves seeing not one red cent. So the guys are understandably upset, because Tenfield takes half of AUF’s money and spends it propping up broke clubs, so none of it goes towards infrastructure improvements (like, say, a facial recognition camera system). The image rights also expire in December, but AUF has to get player approval to grant them again. That gives the players increased leveragem and in fact they issued a second communication today, basically saying that unless AUF chooses an offer that matches or improves on Nike’s they will not grant the rights. Which basically means they will not be called to the team, because that would make things rather awkward (remember old player 23 in those old basketball games?). So the players are pretty much threatening a national team boycott over this issue, at a crucial point in the run up to the 2018 World Cup. Oh happy day!
So what’s going to happen? Your guess is as good as mine. AUF has actually been doing a fairly decent job of slowly untangling itself from Tenfield over the last few years, but the economic threat to the clubs is very real. So is the damage that a player strike would cause. Personally I’m fully on the players’ side, as are an estimated 80% of fans: the Nike offer represents a step towards fair market pricing of AUF’s assets, increased transparency, and the end of Tenfield’s unhealthy influence over Uruguayan soccer. I’m just not going to hold my breath waiting for it to happen. The clubs, rather than the executive board, are the ones that get to vote, so conventional wisdom is that they will find an excuse to turn Nike away. Which is fine, if they really are commited to an open and fair process. And hey, maybe they are! As I said before, I am a very, very naive person.
That’s all for me, fans! See you next time!
UPDATE: And we have a decision! The council discussed the Nike offer tonight and the sides were evenly matched at 9 votes a piece, with only one Rampla Juniors left undecided (there are 19 votes total in the assembly: 1 for each of the 16 first division clubs, but communal votes for the second division, amateur league, and OFI, which brings together clubs from outside Montevideo that are do not belong to one of the three main divisions). Rampla finally decided to vote in favor of the offer, so the yays have it, 10-9.
Of course, that is not the end of Tenfield and Puma. Per their current contract, they have 20 days to match any offer, and it is expected that they will do so. So the Tenfield vampire will likely rise from the grave once again. This time, though, it will cost them a few extra million dollars. I guess it’s better than nothing. Another way to look at it, however, is that tonight Tenfield found out exactly who stands against them, and all it cost them was a few million dollars of Puma’s money.
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