Argentina football league expansion seen as political

The popular first-division league will expand to 30 teams during a presidential election year in 2015.

The popular first-division league will expand to 30 teams during a presidential election year in 2015.

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – Argentina’s popular first-division football league will be expanded in 2015, a move seen as political but unlikely to help pull clubs out of chronic financial troubles. 

The Argentine Football Association (AFA), the sport’s national governing body, said in a statement Wednesday that its executive committee voted unanimously to expand the roster to 30 teams from 20 and put the tournament on a year-long schedule. 

That ends more than two decades of running twice-yearly tournaments. 

AFA president Julio Grondona said the move will increase the participation of clubs from across the nation, not just the traditional hotspots of Buenos Aires and Santa Fe. 

This will make the tournament “fairer,” he said on Radio 10. 

Argentina is known as a country mad about the sport that has produced world greats like Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi. Stadiums fill up on weekends, often shaking under the jumping feet of fans who chose their life-long teams at early ages – or even are born into teams. 

“We’re fans from birth until death,” said Carlos Ojeda, a 50-year-old nurse who is an avid supporter of Racing Club based in Avellaneda, a city on the southern outskirts of Buenos Aires. 

While details are sparse on the design of the new league, Buenos Aires-based newspaper La Nacion said 10 teams will ascend to the first division from Primera B Nacional, a 22-strong division with teams from across the country. 

Sergio Levinsky, a sociologist who has written books on the sport, said this decision is partly political. 

By choosing teams from that league and not Primera B Metropolitana, which is made up of clubs in Greater Buenos Aires, the AFA, which gets most of its money from the state, will increase the visibility of smaller clubs from around the country in the run-up to the October 2015 presidential election. 

President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner is seeking to hold onto power for her Front for Victory party, even as polls show her popularity has been in decline since winning a second and final four-year term in 2011 with 54 percent of the votes. Her approval rating now hovers between 20 and 30 percent.

She has turned to football in the past as a platform for improving her popularity, including by taking over television rights for the state in 2009 from a private media company. 

All the matches now air on broadcast television, for which the state pays about 1.3 billion pesos ($162 million) a year. While the government sells advertising time on the matches, much of it is used to plug its own state programs. 

But the television coverage will prove beneficial for clubs around the country – and their fans.

“Clubs that are largely unknown in Buenos Aires will now get a lot of exposure on television,” Levinsky said. “This will bring more cheer to the fans – and more money for the clubs.” 

Most clubs in Argentina are short on funds, and this forces them to rely on transferring more talented players to the big leagues in Europe to keep afloat. 

The problem is that this limits teams to less experienced players or returning veterans. 

“As soon as a good player comes onto the team, he’s gone in a flash,” said Ojeda. “It is hard to put together a good team over the long haul.” 

Levinsky said this leads to less skill on the pitch – and less domestic transfers. 

Years before a good player would get traded from a smaller club to a bigger team in Argentina like Boca Juniors or River Plate. Now they go straight to Europe, he said. 

Indeed, Spain’s FC Barcelona and England’s Manchester City are both looking to buy goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli directly from Estudiantes de la Plata before he can transfer up through the league. 

Now with the larger league, smaller teams will be able to start negotiating transfers directly with the big teams, a lucrative business. 

Transfers can fetch $5 to $15 million, far more than what each club gets on television rights, Levinsky said.

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