Argentina: Last tango in Russia under threat

Photo: Adam Jones (CC BY-SA 2.0)

ALL THE furore over Argentina’s precarious World Cup qualifying campaign may be just wishful thinking or journalists hoping for a big story. The fact is, aside from Brazil, who have booked their place for 2018, the entire CONMEBOL qualifying series is wide open.

There’s no denying that Argentina have made a mess of their programme, but with four games to go, the likelihood is that La Albiceleste will still be lining up in Russia. Their remaining fixtures are two home games, with Venezuela and Peru, along with two away trips to Uruguay and Ecuador. If they cannot get through that successfully, they will still have the possibility of a play-off with New Zealand.

So why the drama? One of Argentina’s issues is the over-reliance on Lionel Messi, who has just started a four-match ban. He was missing in Bolivia as Argentina suffered their fourth loss in qualifying. He will not return until the last game against Ecuador in Quito. If all goes horribly wrong, that might be the most vital 90 minutes of Messi’s career.

Argentina have appeared in every World Cup since 1974, the last time they failed to qualify was in 1970. The fact is, 2018 might be the last chance the world will get to see Messi on the big stage. He reversed his decision to retire from international football just a couple of months after announcing, following the Copa America final in Chile, he’d had enough. Messi’s international career has been largely unfulfilled although he led his country to the World Cup final in 2014.

Argentina’s World Cup anxiety is only part of the problem. Only a few weeks ago, went ahead with a strike over unpaid wages. The government paid out some USD 20m to try and appease the situation, but the first round of league games was still suspended.

Part of the problem is that the government did not redistribute broadcasting revenues to the clubs. The Argentina Footballers’ Union said that some players have not been paid for up to four months. There’s more problems brewing in the form of a tax investigation involving nine clubs with reports suggesting that they owe more than USD 9m in unpaid taxes. Ironically, president Mauricio Macri launched a tax amnesty last year which proved to be very successful.

Add to that the Argentina squad’s refusal to talk to the media after accusations made about Ezequiel Lavezzi, supposedly about smoking marijuana, and it is clear that all is not well in Buenos Aires. And all of this is against a backdrop of financial crisis in Argentina – high inflation, currency devaluation and a hard-hitting austerity package. This is a country with a roller-coaster financial history that dates back decades. There are plenty of people who still recall the astronomical USD 6bn loss made by oil company YPF in 1983, then the largest annual loss generated by a corporate by some distance. The country has lurched in and out of crisis ever since and YPF has flirted with state ownership and privatisation ever since. In some ways, it characterises Argentina’s financial condition.

President Macri is a former president of Boca Juniors, who currently lead the Argentine league, so he knows the value of football. He told the Financial Times last year: “I always say football represents very clearly what happens in society.” Interesting then, that he said the state of Argentine football was “in a mess, full of corruption and a complete lack of professionalism.”

Macri made the decision to terminate the Fútbol Para Todos initiative introduced by the Cristina Kirchner government. This programme, involving all top flight matches being screened on TV, with government advertising in the breaks. It was, effectively, state subsidisation of football. The government remains the rights holder until the end of 2016-17 but bids are now being considered for TV broadcasting, including interest from Fox, ESPN and Mediapro.

Meanwhile, all eyes will be on the national team and World Cup 2018. In the age of 32-team tournaments, the absence of Argentina is almost unthinkable, and with Messi approaching his 30th birthday, 2018 looks likely to be his World Cup swansong. Argentina is a country that courts theatre – the Tango could come from no other place than the banks of the River Plate – and if Messi has anything of Diego Maradona in him, his comeback in the final qualifying game could provide the perfect stage for some real headlines.

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