When it comes to Argentine football and its often surreal goings-on, it takes a lot to cause a surprise. But few could have imagined that, at the precise moment in which the game's seven-month domestic exile is on the verge of ending, the powers-that-be would choose to pick a fight with the creators of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Pluto. The Argentine Football Association (AFA) and the new-look Liga de Fútbol Profesional have indeed declared war on Disney, with the corporation fighting back in a way that suggests that this particular tale is set for a messy, not-too happy ending.
The adventures of cartoon mice are not AFA president Claudio Tapia and new LFP chief Marcelo Tinelli's chief concern. Rather, the gargantuan merger carried out in 2019 that saw Disney buy up a large proportion of the 21st Century Fox company, including most of its sporting assets. At a stroke two of the biggest sporting broadcasters in Argentina, ESPN and Fox Sports, were now owned and operated by the same people, a fact which given that half of the top flight's television rights were controlled by the latter quickly became of interest to those in charge of the game.
In a move reminiscent of Don Julio Grondona's seizure of the rights from Torneos in 2009, the AFA decided to strip Fox Sports of its matches for broadcast. The decision ostensibly owes to an ongoing complaint filed in the National Commission in Defence of Competition watchdog, which argues that the merger amounts to a monopoly given that, between ESPN and Fox, Disney controls a huge number of the sporting channels available to viewers.
What that means in precise terms for the shortened 2020 season, which kicks off next Friday, is unclear, but the immediate winners will be fellow US media conglomerate Turner Sports, which controls the rest of the transmissions; and local free-to-air channels, who are expected to receive at least a portion of the matches no longer shown by Fox on their own frequencies.
Disney's response did not dally in arriving. Veteran journalist Fernando Niembro, last seen by many withdrawing from Mauricio Macri's list of congressional candidates in 2015 due to murky corruption charges, was ESPN's chosen spearhead to lead the charge as he headed a programme carrying the blunt social media hashtag #Son38a38 (“They're the 38-38”), in allusion to the AFA's infamous botched presidential vote after the death of Grondona.
“Argentine football is changing the game rules on a permanent basis, it's not having legal security, it's giving benefits to your amigos,” Niembro fired off in one of several tirades against the AFA screened by its new avowed enemies. Tapia and Tinelli's decision additionally achieved the near-impossible: bringing together Boca and River, who both hit out against their move against Disney in a joint press statement.
The question of who gets to put the Primera División, Superliga, Liga Profesional or whatever guise the top flight is packaged has long caused undue controversy. Largely this absurd sticking point owes to the AFA, with the tacit or explicit support of the government, insisting on throwing the baby out with the bathwater whenever the opportunity arises.
Bringing football to the masses back in 2009 was a laudable aim, but quickly became sullied by the shadowy manner in which the contracts were first seized and then by the refusal to consider private advertising in favour of wall-to-wall government propaganda. Seven years later and under the presidency of Mauricio Macri, those in charge had the chance to smooth out the rougher edges of Fútbol para Todos and balance public interest with private initiative; instead, the needle was pushed to the other extreme and football was hidden behind a loathed premium paywall by Fox and Turner.
Now this latest overcorrection opens the door for years of litigation – in short, far from a fairytale.