Argentina's top-flight clubs may have returned to training this past week, but the effects of the coronavirus lockdown will continue to be felt long before that seemingly utopian day that the disease becomes just an unpleasant memory. The financial meltdown caused by almost five months of inactivity, added to the fact that the vast majority of clubs were not in a particularly healthy state even before the ball stopped rolling, means that in the coming weeks lawyers and accountants are likely to be every bit as busy around the Primera División as players and coaches.
The case of Independiente, one of the traditional 'big five' of Argentine football, is emblematic of the struggles likely to become commonplace in this uncertain new world.
Since 2014 the Avellaneda club has been administered by a board led by president Hugo Moyano, the long-time head of the hugely influential and powerful trucker's union and former chief of at least part of the umbrella General Workers' Confederation (CGT) grouping. Taking over from Javier Cantero in the wake of the Rojo's first-ever relegation the previous year, Moyano has overseen years of heavy spending in his bid to return the team to Argentina and South America's elite, much of that bankrolled through a lucrative sponsorship deal with mailing giants OCA – which is also controlled by the union heavyweight and his family.
Despite that investment, though, success has come only on a sporadic basis, with victories in the 2017 Copa Sudamericana and 2018 Suruga Bank Trophy breaking up a long list of disappointment and underwhelming league finishes. And now it seems that, aided by Covid-19, the bubble has burst, with half of the club in open revolt as the debts mount up.
On Wednesday inspirational goalkeeper Martín Campaña became the fourth Independiente player to declare himself a free agent since lockdown began, joining Gastón Silva, Fernando Gaibor and Cecilio Domínguez in open rebellion. The following day a fifth, Carlos Benavídez, opened his own legal action, although stopping short of his team-mates' drastic decision.
The motive: three months' unpaid salary, which upon failure to redeem means that under FIFA regulations he is free to seek new employment. The Uruguayan's compatriot Silva just two weeks previously had slammed the club in an open letter, in which the Rojo stood accused of “extorsion” and “economic terrorism” after, according to the player, filing their own countersuit and demanding US$8 million in compensation should any other team sign him.
If that were not enough, Independiente received yet another setback in July when FIFA ruled they must pay US$4 million to Mexico's América after missing two deadlines for payments over the transfer of Domínguez. The Rojo's most recent accounts, for 2019, already showed a crippling debt of just under 1.2 billion pesos, posing questions over just how they will weather this financial perfect storm. Inside the club, though, directors remain bullish.
“Independiente can rest easy, we will get back to work normally,” Moyano's son and vice-president Pablo assured. How that will happen, aside from a vague proposal concerning the creation of an “economic committee,” is far from clear.
The Rojo's predicament, only made more profound by the crisis of 2020, is clear. Astronomical sums have been injected into the club by Moyano in the frustrated attempt to establish them back at the top, much of which has come in the form of bridge loans or other transfers from other business concerns that form part of his empire. On the other hand, while rivals such as Racing Club, River Plate and Vélez Sarsfield have balanced their books with the sale of young talents, precious few have come out of the red half of Avellaneda since the sale of Sergio Agüero to Atlético Madrid more than a decade ago.
The slow bleed of funds has logically turned into a haemorrhage with the suspension of activities, and right now it appears unclear whether Independiente will be able to even field a competitive team in the upcoming Liga Profesional, let alone challenge for honours. Moyano's men are just the most extreme case of how quickly matters can unravel in a league always prone to economic security; and as the lawsuits and transfer requests continue to mount they face further weeks of pain and uncertainty as football slowly resumes normal service.