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Through dictators, Peronists & corruption charges - untouchable 'Godfather' Julio Grondona continues to reign over Argentine football

By Daniel Edwards in Buenos Aires

Compared to what usually constitutes a presidential election in the Argentine FA, 2011's edition was clearly out of the ordinary. The procession and verbose speeches which Julio Grondona has grown accustomed to in the Association headquarters were accompanied by elements that the chief no doubt found rather unnerving.

There were protests outside, while, in the media, serious charges of criminal fraud rang in the ears of the 80-year-old. There was even a 'parallel AFA': fierce opponent, and Independiente Rivadavia president, Daniel Vila did not have enough support from his fellow club chiefs to get on the ballot, and so, outside the Association, he proclaimed himself the real winner. Meanwhile, on the other side of the wall, another four-year term for his rival was quietly being confirmed.

This quickly prompted a 'parallel AFA' Twitter hashtag, which trended worldwide as Argentines speculated on what their football panorama would look like without 'Don Julio' at the helm. The tweets ranged from the witty, right through to the crude, but all carried an underlying note of poignancy.

You see, the vast majority of tweeters on Tuesday evening - and the trend continues without pause - have no idea what their country would be like without Grondona calling the shots. The president has been in power since 1979, and, even now, facing some of the fiercest criticism of his 32-year tenure, no-one dares to see the end in sight.

Why then has the Avellaneda native, former president of Independiente and founder of Arsenal de Sarandi, been able to cling so stubbornly to his place at the top? On the face of it, it certainly appears that his opponents should have more than enough ammunition to take him down. The charges laid at his door on the eve of the election alone would have been too much for most elected officials to withstand.

The Odd Couple | Grondona with Maradona, one of nine Argentina coaches in his tenure

Screening on Vila's America channel, one of the most popular in Argentina, Grondona was accused of, and in many cases discussed himself, corruption, fraud and money laundering; primarily related to the money for television rights which, before reaching club coffers, sits expectantly in the AFA's accounts. Swiss bank accounts with funds totalling $30 million were also alleged, and even more unsavoury incidents were unearthed via the use of hidden cameras.

"I cannot let myself keep getting f***** by [Alejandro Fantino] or anyone else... If I could kill them, I would," the man they call the 'Godfather' stated on camera, referring to a popular journalist and one of the highest-profile critics of Julio's tenure.

Throughout the video, Grondona talks with the quiet confidence of a man who knows he can break almost every rule; and the sad truth is, he can.

The key is in how the Machiavellian statesman has structured the Argentine league system around him. Generally poorly-run financially and heavily indebted, clubs from the Primera A to the lowest level are dependent on the money coming from the AFA to stay afloat. Dissent, or a vote against him, could easily lead to a freezing of this lifeline, and a quick route to financial oblivion.

It is perhaps telling that Velez Sarsfield president Fernando Raffaini was one of the only men to oppose his re-election. The Fortin are held up as a model of financial stability and transparency in Argentina, maybe making the benefits of a strong opposition for one outweigh the potentially catastrophic costs.
"Dictators, Peronists, Radicals ... Grondona has outlasted them all"

In his time in office, Grondona has seen military dictators, Peronists, Radicals and Conservatives all sit in the Casa Rosada, the seat of presidential power in Argentina. He has shaken hands and smiled with all of them, and he has also held on to power when national governments collapsed or changed hands. To this list can be added nine coaches, whom until Sergio Batista this year, Julio took pride in pointing out he had never once sacked - preferring instead, in many cases, to usher them towards the door while making sure the final step was theirs.

Meanwhile, the Albiceleste have now gone 18 years without lifting a major trophy, and it will be 21 when they get another chance in the 2014 World Cup. There are no shortage of people around who put the failures of the last five years in particular squarely at the door of the AFA president; ironically for not doing enough to ensure continuity.

Since the highly-respected Jose Pekerman walked out in 2006 following Argentina's quarter-final finish at the World Cup, no less than four men have tried their luck. Alfio Basile, Diego Maradona and Batista came and went in ever-shorter cycles, while Alejandro Sabella is the latest coach tasked with forming a team out of the talented individuals which lack any sense of togetherness or a common tactical and philosophical idea when they take the field.

The youth system is also seemingly in tatters for much the same reason, the winning structure imposed by Pekerman dismantled in favour of placing friends in key positions - as well as Julio's son, Humberto, a national team director. It is clear to see how this affects the Seleccion on the field; what is less clear is what can be done by his rivals to finally break the mould.

For, while those outside the AFA HQ and at their keyboards dreamed of a 'parallel AFA', the real Association was busy voting in Don Julio for the eighth time, unopposed, and with a crushing majority of 46 club votes out of 49. Even in some of the toughest days of his interminable administration, 'the Godfather' was proving that, when it comes to unseating him from the throne, he remains untouchable.

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