As is perhaps inevitable in a country which has suffered so painfully in recent decades from political and economic instability, the temptation for the Argentine public to look wistfully at how things are done ‘over there,’ in Europe and elsewhere in the world, is sometimes overwhelming. As we battle with spiralling inflation and nerves over hefty debt payments, it is easy to imagine the grass is always greener on the other side. In the sporting arena, a similar phenomenon also occurs.
Dogged as Argentine football is by restrictive budgets, the constant exodus of its stars and serious deficiencies in infrastructure and security, elite divisions such as England’s Premier League loom on the horizon as a Promised Land that might just be reached if only local administrators imitate that shining example. The reality, however, is never so simple, as two historic teams across the Atlantic Ocean demonstrated over the last few days.
Last week opened with Bolton Wanderers and Bury fighting for their lives. Not in a sporting sense; literally, to stave off the risk of dropping out of professional football altogether and facing oblivion. Bolton were saved by a last-minute takeover and injection of fresh capital which means that the side, one of the Football League’s founder members in 1888, live to see another day. Bury were not so fortunate. The Shakers, who had been active in the top four English divisions since 1894, were expelled due to insolvency, the first team to face such a fate for more than 20 years.
There are many conclusions to be drawn from one club’s demise and the (temporary?) stay of execution granted to another. One of course is the gaping inequality present in football, where in the Premier League players come and go for eight or nine-figure transfer fees and with salaries that create instant millionaires, while two or three divisions down institutions barely have enough funds to pay the bills and keep the lights on. Another interpretation casts a wider look at English football’s former heart, the industrial belt of the northwest which both Bury and Bolton call home, impoverished and demoralised by the closing of factories from the 1980s onwards, and sees the plight of those cities’ clubs as another symptom of their malaise.
From an Argentine perspective, though, it is the mismanagement of those in charge that should be of most interest. The spectre of the nation’s biggest clubs falling into private hands has been diminished now with the spectacular defeat of President Mauricio Macri, the initiative’s biggest cheerleader, in primary elections, but those determined to keep teams under fan control must remain vigilant still.
Plenty of influential voices would yet like to see the current system overhauled. Superagent Cristian Bragarnik, for one. “I don’t think fans decide much now,” he told Clarín in February. “They can only insult from the stands or support. And in the countries where sporting private companies have been introduced I don’t see unhappy fans.”
Bragarnik may like to consult with Bury’s faithful. The club was purchased in December 2018 for the symbolic fee of one British pound sterling by businessman Steve Dale, a man who showed total ignorance, not to say contempt, for those hoping for salvation. “I never went to Bury. It’s not a place I frequented,” Dale told BBC Radio 5 Live as Bury teetered on the brink of existence. “So for me to walk away from Bury and never go back is a very easy thing to do. I don’t do anything up there. I didn’t even know there was a football team called Bury, to be honest with you.”
“It’s absolutely disgusting – the EFL needs to be reformed. You can’t have people buying a club for a pound and bleeding it dry,” Bury fan Helen Richardson fired off to The Guardian. Dale indeed is far from the only unscrupulous figure to buy into a team in the hope of a quick profit and to pull the plug at the slightest hint of frustration. From the Premier League down clubs have long been a convenient outlet for impresarios to perform all means of financial acrobatics, without fear of sanction from a governing body whose timidity when it comes to financial misdeeds is infamous.
Closer to home the likes of Racing Club, Ferro and Deportivo Español have all previously suffered from private interests. Positive examples do exist, of course, but they can only become the norm if the buyer in question has near-unlimited riches and no expectation of profit – the case of Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain, whose status as effective property of Middle-Eastern governments raises its own ethical dilemmas – or if those interested in investing are vetted and controlled with extreme vigour. With little prospect of the former occurring and, if those much-admired league ‘over there’ are any indication, less chance still that the latter can take place, Argentina should be in no rush to wrest clubs out of fans’ control and open the Superliga and beyond to the whims of a single individual’s chequebook.