Julio Grondona, Argentine Soccer’s Caudillo, 1931–2014

In his 35 years as head of the Argentine FA, Julio Grondona, who passed away yesterday at age 82, witnessed, and endured, constant change: There were 14 presidents (through military dictatorship and democracy); nine national team coaches; four different currencies; hyperinflation; and an economic crisis of epic proportions.

Throughout all that, Grondona remained a constant. He was strengthened by the challenges he faced and consolidated his circle of allies with each passing year. Argentine sportswriter Hernán Castillo, in his unauthorized biography of Grondona “Todo Pasa” (Everything Passes), referred to him as “Argentina’s greatest politician.” According to Castillo, Grondona “was with [senior commander] Jorge Rafael Videla, applauded [Raúl] Alfonsín (and the return of democracy), he smiled with [Carlos] Menem, saluted the Alliance [Argentine Anticommunists] and became an ally of the Kirchners. He was a political animal, a chameleon, who from his hardware store became vice president of the world.” His deftness to adapt and survive made him as powerful as any caudillo (or chief) that had ruled that country in the past. He was the ally of every Argentine president because that was the only office in Argentina that was more powerful than his.

He had the serum that enabled Argentines to forget about the country’s bigger problems. In 2009, this made it feasible for the current Kirchner regime to buy the Argentine league television rights via Fútbol Para Todos (FPT), a government initiative to put games on public television, which in the process was a victory for the government against private media. It was also a way for Grondona to generate more revenue for a league facing serious economic problems across the board. It was the AFA president that single-handedly expedited the matter by voiding its contract with then-rights holders Grupo Clarín and coming to terms with the government.

Grondona saw his football future at the administrative level when he didn’t make River Plate’s youth squad. While running his hardware store, he helped found the club Arsenal in Sarandí back in 1957. It would be a long time, but his club eventually earned promotion to the top flight in 2002, won the Copa Sudamericana in 2007, and its first league title in the first division in 2012.

In 1964, he worked at the administrative level with Independiente, the same year they won their first Copa Libertadores title. Twelve years later he was able to defeat incumbent Oscar Sobral to become Independiente’s president. This occurred despite Sobral having four consecutive Copa Libertadores titles to show for with the Avellaneda giants.

In 1979, a year after Argentina won the World Cup on their home soil, Grondona took the next step in his career and became AFA president. Some say with the help of the military junta, specifically Vice Admiral Carlos Lacoste, who was extremely active in the decisionmaking process at AFA at that time. It was his vision that made him so vital to that era of South American football and helped Argentina become a perennial World Cup contender and relevant on the world stage. The results don’t lie: On his watch, the Albiceleste won six U–20 World Cups; two Copa America titles; two Olympic gold medals; and the World Cup in 1986.

These were real positives, but Grondona became a cult of personality. His decisions, whether right or wrong, were virtually rubber stamped by an executive committee that would do his bidding. He might have been responsible in part for the growth of Argentine football, but he was also responsible for its decadence in the last 15 years. Because of his constant tinkering, the league began losing its luster.

His alleged vote for Qatar’s World Cup bid caused more controversy, especially when he said, “a vote for the U.S. was a vote for England.” Still, Grondona, who was also the chairman of the FIFA’s financial committee, came out virtually unscathed alongside his good friend and greatest ally in Zurich, Sepp Blatter.

His absence now leaves a hole in the middle of CONMEBOL, as it was Grondona who gave the organization the power it had at the international level. This is what 35 years of having one person with absolute power does to a region. Grondona also leaves a national team in limbo. He was supposed to make a decision on the replacement for national team coach Alejandro Sabella in the coming days. That will have to be worked on by the people left behind. The same people that will find themselves mired in an upcoming power struggle that was presided over by the same man for far too long.