Players strike in Peru points way forward
Professional football walks an uneasy line between business and culture.
As businesses go, football is unorthodox. Success is measured in trophies, not profits, and the relationship between the clubs is more like partners than true competitors. Clubs need each other and without enough opponents to sustain a season-long calendar there is no professional football.
This relationship is reflected at its most crude in the United States model. In Major League Soccer the league is a single entity. The risk of relegation has been removed, and competitive balance between the clubs is sought via the draft system, where the team that finished last gets first pick of the next generation of promising youngsters.
To those of us from football's more traditional heartlands, all of this comes across as anathema, cynical business machinations that chip away at the concept of football being a cultural expression. But if the US model takes business to its extremes, the South American way of doing things goes too far in the other direction.
The idea of a club as a predominantly social organisation, owned by its fans, has an obvious attraction. In South America, though, it is looking very obsolete - without even getting into the issue that in some countries, notably Brazil, the members are not always representative of the fans.
One of the clear problems with this model is the fact that it allows so much politics to take place inside the club, with different factions jockeying for position. At its worst, in Argentina, it has helped give rise to the entrenched cancer of the professional football thug. From humble beginnings as an internal rent-a-mob, some of the Argentine gangs have become deeply entrenched and influential.
Another grave deficiency of the social club model is that it does not subject the clubs to the financial discipline of a normal business - which can lead to mismanagement and corruption. Presidents can sign players on contracts the club can barely afford, and then at the end of their mandate, having built up debts to the playing staff and the taxman, they simply walk away. Football is so important that the big clubs never get shut down however much they owe, and everything becomes a question of negotiation, staving off financial crisis for the next few months.
San Martin players such as Aldo Corzo have been forced to train in a park. Pic: Getty
Peruvian football is going through such a process at the moment. Tired of unpaid debts, the players union has been pushing for fiscal discipline. Last November I wrote about the dire situation of Universitario, the country's most successful club, where the players had not been paid for months. Their big rivals, Alianza Lima, find themselves in a similar predicament, as have more than half of the first division. In theory, clubs with debts to their players were not allowed to take part in this year's championship. In practice, it is all a question of negotiation.
The clubs were pushing for an extra 24 months to pay off what they already owe. The players union decided this was unacceptable, and called a strike for the first round of the championship two weeks ago. It held firm, and the clubs were represented by youth teams.
But this created a new problem. Those clubs with no debts were outraged by the fact that their players had joined the strike. To them it seemed like a betrayal. A couple of teams talked about sacking their entire playing staff. One went further. San Martin announced that they were withdrawing from professional football.
Some readers might recall my reports from San Martin games almost three years ago. Founded by a Lima university as recently as 2004, their support base was tiny and unorthodox. Usually South American terraces are full of banners with the names of local working class regions. San Martin's banners had been put up by students of dentistry, or administration and human resources. I saw one of their home games and one away - where a grand total of 33 fans, plus a mascot dressed up as a tooth - attended the local derby with Sporting Cristal.
But even without much support, San Martin managed to win the Peruvian championship three times in their short life. They were clearly doing something right. The very absence of fans might have been an advantage - no populist pressures to deal with. And perhaps the secret lay in their model of administration. San Martin were the first Peruvian club to set up along orthodox business lines.
All of this should lead to the conclusion that the club understood the nature of the business they had entered. But that must now be in doubt as a result of their decision to sack the players and wind up their activities.
It is impossible to see how the interests of San Martin were harmed by the action of the players. This, after all, is not an ordinary business where production was halted and losses incurred. All the teams played the first round with youth teams. No one snatched San Martin's "market share".
The players, moreover, have every reason to go on strike. True, this season they are with a club that pays on time. But next season things might be different. They might be with another club, in an industry that is not being well run.
Last week San Martin's director and club president Jose Antonio Chang said "the only way that the university will reconsider [the decision to end activities] is if all the clubs are up to date with their labour and tax obligations."
And yet this is the very state of affairs that the players' strike is seeking to bring about. It is an attempt to impose discipline on chaos. National team coach Sergio Markarian, perhaps a believer in Chinese proverbs, sees opportunity in the strike. "These events are positive for Peruvian football," he said, "because this crisis will force us to think about a better way of doing things."
Hopefully a lot of thinking, and even more negotiating, will take place in the next few days, in time for the championship to resume at the weekend. In the meantime, San Martin's players - or ex-players - are training in a Lima park. It would be good if they get their old jobs back. San Martin would surely not want to be remembered as the club that ran away when it could have stayed and been part of the solution.
Comments on the piece in the space provided. Questions on South American football to email@example.com, and I'll pick out a couple for next week.
From last week's postbag:
Q) I remember a few years back you saying that Alexandre Pato was touched by the hands of a genius, I don't think he has quite lived up to such high praise. He has been unlucky with injuries. One article I read suggested that it was due to him growing taller and more muscular in a short space of time and his body hasn't adjusted to the change? Is this the main reason?
A) I wonder if psychological motives have been more important, and the problems of dealing with so much so soon. Former AC Milan boss Carlo Ancelotti is an admirer, but wasn't always impressed with his attitude in training. When Dunga was in charge of Brazil he felt the same way.
Pato made a very unwise choice to marry a Brazilian soap opera actress. I could never imagine this one working. They were too young, he was just about to enter a world of temptations and she had to put on hold a high profile career to be with him in Italy. I always thought that one would end badly, and so it did - it made me wonder about the advice he is getting from people around him.