Don Julio’s monument

Julio Humberto Grondona. Photo: Damian Zanini/Flickr

For decades Julio Humberto Grondona has been ruling football in Argentina as well as being one of the most powerful men in FIFA. His harsh leadership has earned him the nick name ‘Don Julio’, but time is running out for 80-year-old Grondona, who is confronted with unpopularity in his home country and new allegations of corruption. Ezequiel Fernández Moores writes a portrait on one of football’s controversial figures.

The monument to Julio Humberto Grondona in Zurich, a tribute from FIFA to be inaugurated next February, will be three meters tall with bronze finishes. Still, Grondona would prefer a tribute like that to be presented to him in his own country. But 32 years in a row as president of the Argentine Football Association (AFA) can wear out anyone. Increasingly close to retirement, Grondona will fulfill his last protocolar activity as the Senior Vice President of FIFA during the Club World Cup, which will conclude on Sunday, December 18th in Japan. Grondona, say sources in Argentina consulted for this article, will also continue to have a role in FIFA under an honorary designation. 

At age 80, and with his health deteriorated, it will be also difficult for Grondona to remain as president of AFA all the way to 2015, the year in which his ninth consecutive term ends. Lately he has lost weight and his voice is weaker. Grondona has booked an appointment in the operating room in February 2012 to have his bowel decompressed – it remains blocked after doctors removed a cancerous tumor from his colon last September. His grandchildren have asked him to stop working in February, after the FIFA homage and the surgery. But Nélida, Grondona’s wife, said a few days ago to a radio station in Buenos Aires that "there will be Grondona for a while" and that her husband "will fulfill his post until the last day of his tenure." Furthermore, his friends have a single response for the inquisitive media: "Don Julio – they say to everyone – has the strength of a bull."

Talking the language of football
Grondona became the second most powerful man in FIFA without speaking English, but nobody talks the language of football like him. He was a player, a coach, a fan, founded a club (Arsenal de Sarandí), led another (Independiente) and chairs a national association (AFA). Just as Mexico 86, the World Cup won for Argentina by Diego Maradona, was his happiest time, he believed that 2011 would begin a golden farewell. But when his national team, now led by Lionel Messi, failed in the Copa América tournament played at home, in Argentina, Grondona decided not to even go down to the lawn to award the prize to the champion, the team from Uruguay. He did that because he was afraid to receive a disapproving whistling even louder than that directed against his friend Joseph Blatter, the president of FIFA. So he remained seated on the stage. 

Three months later, and for the first time in decades, his umpteenth nomination to the chair of AFA suffered a debilitating internal competition. The main rival, businessman Daniel Vila, América TV station's owner, gave a ridiculous show by the entrance to the AFA headquarters on the day of the election, proclaiming himself to be the president-elect by a vote of a dozen tiny clubs from inland Argentina. That was on October 18th. That same day, Grondona was re-elected for the eighth time, with 46 of the 48 votes of the assembly. Another potential domestic rival of Grondona, Fernando Raffaini, then president of the Vélez Sarsfield club, was not able to obtain the seven assemblymen endorsements required by AFA regulations. A requirement perhaps exaggerated, which resulted in Grondona having had only one rival in eight elections through 32 years: the former referee Teodoro Nitti, who managed to get just one vote in 1991. 

Argentine clubs have always supported him, either because of conviction, convenience or fear. The small teams prefer him: they maintain that only Grondona was able to prevent Boca Juniors and River Plate, the two most powerful teams in Argentina, from unbalancing the local League, as Real Madrid and Barcelona in Spain have done. They know that his method is not precisely a democratic one: it comprehends co-opted referees defining championships’ titles or relegation to an inferior league for some clubs, arbitrary allocation of money from TV broadcastings, sanctions from the Disciplinary Tribunal, and even granting staff positions within FIFA, including travels to Zurich with personal expenses paid for in dollars. These were his everlasting tools that he used to discipline rebels.

The rise to power
It is a system that, in fact, Grondona experienced as a child in Crucecita, a neighborhood in his native city of Sarandí, in the Avellaneda Partido, located in the southern outskirts of Buenos Aires. It was not at all a land of thinkers or philosophers, and much less the place where the elite British schools hosted the first soccer practice in Argentina. Grondona grew up in the territories Jorge Luis Borges wrote much about in the midst of laws that were written based on knife duels, informal loyalties to the neighborhood’s point men, gangs and mafias. And politicians who, amid continuing military dictatorships, found refuge in the football clubs to maintain links with their people. Football and politics have always been linked in Argentina. Grondona was appointed president of AFA in 1979 during the cruelest military dictatorship that Argentina has ever known. But it is necessary to clarify that the football clubs were the ones that promoted his appointment, and not the military, as some of his critics claim today. 

The journey that began more than half a century ago in Sarandí ultimately led him to Zurich. In 1988, two years after Argentina won its second World Cup championship in Mexico 86, Grondona was added to the FIFA Executive Committee. His arrival was due to Diego Maradona’s feats, but Grondona’s subsequent rise was his own work. He has been Senior Vice President of the Executive Committee, Vice Chairman in charge of strategic affairs, number-two man in the Bureau for South Africa 2010 and in that World Cup’s Organising Committee, President of Marketing and Television, and Chairman of the Finance Committee. In the middle of the France 98 World Cup, Blatter thanked him for his flamboyant and controversial election as FIFA president with a tribute held at the Palace of Versailles. Grondona also received the Leader of the Year award. In 1999, he rejected a proposal to take the position of president of FIFA for himself, an idea put forward by sectors questioning Blatter’s management. And in 2002 it was Grondona who ordered Blatter to fire secretary-general Michel Zen-Ruffinen after the latter accused the president of FIFA before Swiss courts.

New allegations
Everything had changed. Crucesita (in a variant now spelled with an S) ceased to be just a humble neighborhood in Grondona’s native Sarandí: the word was used to name one of the many companies owned by him, including Baprisud, Conenar and several more. Together, they formed a conglomerate of construction and insurance enterprises and gasoline stations registered under the names of Grondona and relatives and friends of his. A fortune – reported for the first time in 1994 by the magazine Noticias – that, according to recent reports, is contained today in 12 accounts under 11 companies that Grondona and his relatives and friends would have in banks, mainly in Switzerland, for a total of 106 million dollars. 

The existence of these accounts was reported by Carlos Ávila, former head of Torneos y Competencias (TyC), a firm that for years was a partner of AFA in the television broadcasting of football. Ávila, who has already lost much of the fortune he earned through the company, put a hidden camera to film his ex-partner Grondona and Eduardo Deluca, who was Grondona’s right-hand man on football issues – including business in AFA and also in the CONMEBOL – for some years. These men have confessed in dialogues secretly filmed by Ávila how the Clarín Group – a partner in TyC and the most powerful multimedia news company in the country – allegedly paid bribes to keep the TV business for itself. In 2010 Grondona broke the contract with Clarín-TyC, sick of their refusals to increase the amount of the fee they paid annually. He chose a partner even more powerful: the federal Argentine government, which tripled the money, left his enemy Clarín without a business, and won popular support by taking the football games out of paid cable TV and broadcasting them for free. The new company created by the association AFA-government was renamed "Football for All".

Pushed by the climate of the coming elections in AFA – heated in turn because of the mighty River Plate club dropping to the second division for the first time in 102 years – Ávila sued Grondona. He also released some of his secret video recordings to the press and leaked information on the alleged accounts Grondona had abroad. Besides Crucesita and the other companies that he had or has in Argentina, the existence of other firms abroad was made public, namely Kellogg Development Inc., with accounts in the banks Vontobel AG, Centrum, Hyposwiss, Citibank and Lloyds Bank. Mariano Cúneo Libarona, a powerful and controversial lawyer representing Ávila, accused Grondona of "partaker-degree mismanagement." 

He suggested that that money, not declared by Grondona in Argentina, could have originated from briberies given to FIFA, perhaps as money that would have circulated among members of the Executive Committee following the disputed appointments of Russia and Qatar as the hosts of the World Cups to be played in 2018 and 2022, respectively. Prosecutor Viviana Fein asked to send letters rogatory to Switzerland requesting reports on the denounced bank accounts, but Judge Jorge López dismissed and archived that case: it happened that Ávila, after being called by López to testify on November 11th, withdrew his accusation. The prosecution, wrote Judge López in his ruling, "lacks the minimum of evidentiary and indicative support" required to build a case. As does the complaint by the Wall Street Journal made a few days after the FIFA vote. The daily business newspaper wrote, without presenting any proof or evidence, that Grondona had received 78 million dollars as a bribe to give his vote to Qatar. 

But another judge, Claudio Bonadío, following a similar denounce filed by another lawyer (Fabián Bergenfeld) decided after all to sent rogatories to the banks Credit Suisse First Boston, UBS, Vontobel, Centrum Bank AG, Hyposwiss Privatbank AG, Citibank NY and Lloyds TSB Bank, and also to Argentina’s tax authorities asking for Grondona’s tax return of the last ten years.

No monument in Argentina
So far, Grondona has not responded if the accounts are his or not, and has launched a counter-attack in the courts claiming that he was a victim of "extortion”. To his favor, he said that the allegations against him appeared in the news media only after he refused to resign his post at AFA and to prevent the relegation of the mighty River Plate. Grondona continues to collect 80 or more percent disapproval ratings in any survey. Soccer fans blame him primarily for not stopping the violence of hooligans raging in the stadiums in Argentina, for the clubs’ economic loss of control, and for the national team’s poor performance in World Cups after its success in Mexico 86. 

Because of all of the above, nobody in Argentina wants to propose a monument to his persona. And that, at the end of his term, is something that hurts "Don Julio", as they call him in Argentina, in a show of a mixture of admiration for his lasting value and also fear, as if he were Don Vito Corleone. "Don Julio" reappeared in a radio station in Buenos Aires after the final judicial dismissal: "In my 32 years in AFA,” he said, “I had more accusations against me than Al Capone did, and I never had to endure a penalty for such allegations."


Ezequiel Fernández Moores is an Argentine sports journalist and writer. Read more here.


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