Hello, again, fútbol fans! I wanted to take a break from the train wreck that is Nacional’s 2014 season. Luckily, the powers that be in Uruguayan soccer chose this very week to completely implode, leading to many panicked meetings, threatened fisticuffs, and the possibility that FIFA would hand down a suspension that would keep La Celeste from playing in next July’s World Cup. So we can talk about that!
Rather than writing in incredibly long post detailing all the issues, why don’t I just give you the big picture by answering your questions? Let’s get to it.
I’m an American. What’s fútbol?
Ok, you need to go back to 1989 right now and let the rest of us get on with this. Seriously.
Wait, Uruguay made it to the World Cup again? Is that allowed?
That’s a fair question. If you haven’t been paying attention lately, then you probably think of Uruguay soccer as an infighting, underachieving bunch that used to matter back in the day but is now mired in eternal mediocrity. Well, I have news for you: over the last seven years, things have changed. Under the guidance of Oscar “el Maestro” Tabárez, Uruguay has managed to become relevant on the world stage. The national team placed fourth in the 2010 World Cup, won the 2011 Copa America, and came in fourth again in last year’s Confederations Cup. They are ranked 6th in the world and were one of the seeded teams for 2014. This renaissance has been aided by a commitment to developing young players that resulted in Uruguay participating in the last 6 youth World Cups (placing second in both the 2011 under 17 and the 2013 under 20 championships) and the 2012 Olympic tournament (84 years after their last appearance!). Being a Uruguay fan right now is like the last twenty minutes of Major League.
So, what’s the problem?
This success has not trickled down to the clubs. Other than Nacional, Peñarol, and a couple of other teams, most can barely attract a few hundred fans per game, and survive by selling promising youngsters to foreign clubs. They’re one bad decision away from disappearing (it happened to Bella Vista, which was relegated to second division last year but has not played since because they can’t afford to pay their debts) and it can happen to almost any team. Infrastructure is severely lacking, violence is on the rise, and everyone is hanging on the next big score to make the money last just a little longer. It’s that, or they depend on the generosity of agents, especially the infamous Paco Casal and his Tenfield empire, which is alleged to offer players at a discount rate in exchange for certain favors, like having the first cut at selling promising youngsters, voting his way in local TV rights negotiations, serving as middlemen for foreign transfers that would otherwise be illegal (one Uruguayan club was fined earlier this year for several irregular transactions involving players that never actually suited up for them), suing CONMEBOL in order to give him a better chance to win continental rights contracts, and so on.
Look, I don’t need to tell you that there’s quite a bit of corruption in soccer. You’ve heard about the Brazil construction boondoggles and read all about the Qatar and Russia rigged World Cup voting, right? Well, this is similar. Some companies, Tenfield included, would like a chance to bid for the rights to things like the Libertadores Cup. They claim that they’ve offered many times the current rights fees, but have been refused because the company that does own the rights is owned by influential friends of the CONMEBOL honchos. CONMEBOL, on the other hand, says that they don’t want to allow some companies in the bidding because of prior failure to pay agreed-upon fees. Accusations are flying back and forth. It’s ugly. And all we know for sure is that everyone involved is shady as hell.
So where does Uruguay fit into all this?
There has been a movement by South American clubs to force CONMEBOL to open up and share more information about who pays for what and where the money goes, as they feel that they’re not getting their fair share. Some say that the movement has been organized by Tenfield to get their foot in the door, although the concerns seem real regardless of who is behind it. CONMEBOL refused, and eventually a group of Uruguayan small clubs sued them in court.
That’s right. If there’s anything FIFA and its continental underlings hate, it’s getting the law involved. In fact, clubs and national associations that want to keep their FIFA membership have to sign a document agreeing to forgo their rights to external proceedings. FIFA claims it’s because national governments are easily corrupted and can be used to destroy the purity of sport. I would say that’s like the pot calling the kettle black, but there’s no pot black enough to represent FIFA in this case. It would be like a black hole calling a kettle black. Seriously, go Google “FIFA corruption” right now. I’ll wait.
OK I’m back. Man, that was depressing.
Yes. So CONMEBOL threatened action against the clubs involved, claiming they were doing Casal’s dirty business. They suspended the presidents of the institutions in question and opened a formal investigation against the clubs themselves, which is still ongoing.
Meanwhile, a group of first and second division clubs was opening another battle front against the Uruguayan association itself, claiming that it was prioritizing Tabárez’s national team project over the financial health of the clubs that provide the players that fuel that process. There were rumors about outlandish salaries handed out to equipment managers and team chefs, and other tidbits of that sort. It culminated in that group (basically, everyone not named Nacional or Peñarol) asking for the resignation of the elected Executive board, six months before the end of their term.
Yes. The two big clubs supported the board, saying the time for making changes was in July when election time comes around, so nothing happened. Then Nacional played against Newell’s Old Boys for the Libertadores Cup. After the game, some fans objected to being kept in the stadium so that Newell’s supporters could get the hell out of town safely, so they fought police and wrecked the stands. Uruguayan President Jose “Pepe” Mujica responded by saying the police would no longer enter the national Centenario stadium (where the incidents happened) or Nacional’s home ground. That created a problem because Peñarol was due to play at the Centenario last weekend against Miramar Misiones. The association tried to reschedule the game at Defensor’s place (they can do that because Uruguay), and Defensor said they’d pay the $100,000 fine instead. So the game was cancelled while everyone was meeting with everyone else to find a solution. Some clubs said they would not play their remaining games until Peñarol and Miramar played, so as not to hand over a strategic advantage, and in the end the whole thing was too much for the board. They resigned en masse.
Which is a problem because…
Because now there’s no one to oversee the tournament, or deal with FIFA and CONMEBOL, or support the national team as it prepares for the World Cup. The clubs had even more meetings trying to come up with a solution. In the meantime, CONMEBOL opened an investigation into the Uruguayan government’s role in all of this, which could in theory lead to the suspension of the Association and the removal of Uruguay from the World Cup.
They can do that?
In theory, they can. Other nations have been banned from international competition. Chile spent several years in timeout after their goalie took advantage of the smoke from a thrown firecracker and cut his own forehead open in a game against Brazil, hoping to bring sanctions down upon the Brazilians. Jerry Lawler and Good Ol’ JR were beside themselves. Unfortunately, no one bought it and Chile got smacked by CONMEBOL.
In practice, removing a team from the World Cup at this stage would be problematic, especially a group seed. Who would you choose as a replacement? Would you have one group with fewer teams in it, which would lead to cancelled games? Look, this World Cup may not have proper transportation, adequate security, or finished stadiums, but it has to have all the teams in it. So that level of punishment was unlikely.
So what happened?
Well, the clubs had a general meeting last night to resolve all of this. They had a proposal for a group of club executives to take over as an interim board until the July elections, with Danubio’s president as the head of the board. Just as they were getting together, though, CONMEBOL issued a communication suspending Uruguay’s delegates from the day to day business of South American soccer. Basically, Uruguayan authorities and representatives can’t participate in CONMEBOL meetings, present candidates for office, or submit topics for meeting agendas; they’re basically a silent partner. The measure will be voted on at the next CONMEBOL congress in July, but they gave Uruguay 72 hours to present a defense (because they won’t be able to speak at the congress). That’s hard to do when you have no board, as I’m sure CONMEBOL knew. All in all, it was an unprecedented punishment, and the timing of it was interesting to say the least. The one bright spot is that there were no on-field sanctions, so fans can still see La Celeste this July. Knowing FIFA, though, I’d keep a close eye on the behavior of the referees assigned to Uruguay matches.
Of course, this announcement had a big impact on the club meeting. There was a proposal to decline the outgoing board’s resignation, which failed by an 8-7 vote, with two abstentions. Curiously, there are reports of one of the club presidents, who is Argentinian, receiving calls from Julio Grondona, president of Argentina’s federation and an all-around heavyweight in CONMEBOL politics, then changing his vote to favor the outgoing president, who was coincidentally meeting with Grondona and other CONMEBOL executives at the time. In any case, the resignation was accepted, but now the proposed President decided to step down because of all the craziness happening. After Jose Damiani, Peñarol’s president, asked for yet another break, one of Nacional’s delegates questioned why that was necessary and made a crack about Damiani’s ability to stay on one side of an issue. Things escalated. “What, you got a problem?” “Come at me bro!” “Anytime!” No punches were thrown thanks timely intervention by other participants, and eventually the two boys apologized and made up (yes, there was kissing), but that shows how hot tempers were running.
Wait, there was kissing?
It’s the 21st Century. In some cultures men use a peck on the cheek as a greeting. Get over it.
I guess. Does the association have a board or not?
Eventually, everyone calmed the hell down and got down to business. They elected a board made up of most of the same guys they were going to elect before, with a man by the name of Wilmer Valdez as the new president. When he’s not helping his much more famous brother guide a team of burros through the hills of Colombia to bring you only the finest coffee beans, Wilmer Valdez is the president of Rentistas (roughly translated as “the trust fund kids,” which is a joke about the poor neighborhood where it was founded), which happens to be one of the teams under investigation by CONMEBOL. So Valdez is suspended as President of Rentistas and now also as President of the Uruguayan Federation. He’s in double secret suspension.
The clubs also adopted a controversial FIFA policy that punishes clubs for their fans’ violent acts by taking away points and levying heavy fines. They did this because Mujica demanded it as a condition for police to return to the games. So there will be soccer this Sunday. The other thing that happened is that the rogue teams quietly rescinded their legal complaint against CONMEBOL to avoid further action against Uruguay. So other than the hit to its public image brought on by all this, it looks like CONMEBOL is the big winner here.
Is that it?
For now, yes it is. There’s still the July meeting that will decide Uruguay’s fate at CONMEBOL. The suspension did not come with a set timetable, so it could in theory last forever. Then there’s the underlying conflict between the clubs and the local association that started all of this, which must be addressed. There’s already talk about having a meeting later this month where the assembly will raise the number of teams in the First Division (because, clearly, 20 broke clubs are easier to manage than 16). Their argument is that with more clubs there will be opportunities to show more games on TV and expand to Friday and Monday nights (currently Tenfield broadcasts the games involving Nacional and Peñarol, one each on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, plus an additional game between two of the smaller clubs that takes place Sunday mornings). There’s also talk that the expanded schedule and additional broadcast opportunities would entice Tenfield to invest money in stadium infrastructure, helping to install lighting so that those Friday and Monday night games can happen. Of course, that does nothing to dispel the notion that the clubs are in Casal’s pocket.
Uruguayan first division clubs have stadiums with no artificial lighting?
Look, Peñarol has been around for over a century and is one of the two most successful teams in the country, and they broke ground on their own field two months ago. It’s the developing world, OK? Not everyone can have a gorgeous field like Nacional’s Parque Central. Sometimes you make do with an older or less fancy facility, and sometimes you borrow the national stadium whenever you need to play a home game. Did I mention that Peñarol has no home stadium?
Yes, you did. More than once.
Well, they don’t. Anyway, there are still a lot of tough questions to answer. The only thing everyone can agree on at this point is that the national team should be kept out of it and Tabárez should be left alone to prepare for the World Cup. Other than that, who knows? It also remains to be seen if CONMEBOL’s heavy hand against Uruguay will deter further challenges to its “don’t look at the man behind the curtain” accounting policies. I guess we’ll find out. I think additional transparency would be a welcome change for the sport, but it will be an uphill battle for sure.
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