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Players strike in Peru points way forward

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Tim Vickery | 10:18 UK time, Monday, 27 February 2012

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.

Players such as Aldo Corzo have been forced to train in a park

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, 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?
Omar Gregory

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.


  • Comment number 1.

    Once again a good read Tim, always the best thing about monday mornings. Lets hope that we get good responses this week and not the idiocy that some members posted last week.

  • Comment number 2.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • Comment number 3.

    It shouldn't amaze you at all, it's just as corrupt as elsewhere.

    Great text as usual Tim, you hit the nail on the shortcomings of the club structure. I don't think the solution would necessarily lie on leaning more to the clubs as companies formula: the main issue as you correctly indicated is accountability and that could be tackled by stepping up what is legally required of clubs and their management. Brazil might already be on the right track, it all depends on how much enforcement the existing legislation will get.

  • Comment number 4.

    Excellent blog Tim - puts the others on the BBC to shame.

    Interesting points on the differing perspectives of 'success' and clubs as 'social organisations', though a better term may be 'cultural organisations' to reflect the fact that even fans can have radically different visions of what their club stands for in the wider scheme of things: which sometimes introduces obvious tensions and conflicts (e.g. the different shades of the Old Firm supports in Scotland). 'More than a club'?

    And of course you raise the thorny issue of financial governance. Indeed the Peruvian League may be a good home for Glasgow Rangers since it seems that you can successfully negotiate your debts. I don't believe that indebtedness should be defended or rewarded but football is a murky business and not just in SAmerica.

  • Comment number 5.

    I agree with Pato's lack of attitude, even during the match.

    But don't you think he's in a tactical riddle nowadays? Like Aguero, he's not strong enough for the lone striker role, and not that suited to play as a wing-striker. Aguero is played behind the striker in a 4-2-3-1, where he doesn't need to do that much of back-tracking, but Milan don't play in that system. I think Pato would do much better in that role (Jonas also plays in that role for Valencia, which is perfect for him, no tracking the fullbacks), he should move to a team with more expansive tactics like a spanish team.

    I think its difficult for some Brazilian players to adapt, because in Brazil he played in a simple 4-4-2 where he didn't need to be shifted to wings or track back that much, funnily enough, Abel yesterday had two wingers who tracked back Vasco's fullbacks constantly (especially Wellington)

    By the way, what do you think of Wellington of Fluminense, Tim? Cheers

  • Comment number 6.

    I had high hopes for Pato when he arrived, and it's fair to say he's not really lived up to those expectations. At his best though, he reminds/reminded me of Ronaldo; strong, with a sharp turn of pace, taking similar lines, and composed in front of goal - minus O Fenomeno's trickery.

    Like someone before has mentioned, I think the growth theory may have some credence. He doesn't seem to have that acceleration any more. I remember being particularly impressed when he ran Mexes ragged in a game against Roma, but nowadays he rarely has the beating of his marker.

    Also, I agree to some extent that the tactical side is not aiding his cause. I think the time has come for him to accept that he can't be the central striker, at least not in this Milan. And his heart doesn't seem to be in it when he's posted wide of Ibrahimovic.

    As a 22-year old, with potentially eight to ten years left at the top level, he can look back on his infant career and be pleased with what he's achieved - practically a 1:2 goal ratio in Serie a is no mean feat for a player his age - but he still needs a little something extra to propel him into the elite.

  • Comment number 7.

    I personally wish these players all the best and if San Martin want to take their ball home, I'm sure nobody will really notice apart from the players contracted to them, which really proves their point for striking in the first place; they have zero job security!

    Hopefully other leagues' players will follow suit as I think most people are now sick of seeing clubs constantly getting into debt in the vain hope of being competitive. TV and moneymen (I mean the leeches) have ruined our game.

  • Comment number 8.

    Hi Tim,

    Apologies that this is off topic but it's really bugging me. Yesterday I went to the Carioca cup final between Vasco da Gama and Fluminense and thoroughly enjoyed it, good game, good atmosphere and just a lot of fun. Speaking to some of the locals at the game it was evident that it was an important cup to win, lots of local pride at stake. What I can't understand then is why was the ground half empty? People gave reasons like high ticket prices, or the game being on a Sunday when people like to have a churrasco or go to the beach, or even just that the game was on tv. If it's as important as the supporters made out, why doesn't it come ahead of things that people can do any other Sunday? Or why isn't the price of tickets lower? In England you rarely see 'important' games with empty seats, even fixtures like the charity shield (which is potentially the closest thing I can think of to compare this to) generally sells almost all it's tickets - especially if it were to be played between two local rivals. Any kind of explanation would be much appreciated!

    One other thing that I didn't understand was why the Vasco players just left the pitch after the game, is it not common for the losing side in cup finals to receive a runners up medal and then stay to see the winners lift the trophy, out of respect as much as anything?

    Thanks for your articles, I enjoy them every week.

  • Comment number 9.

    @ #6

    Pato has lost his acceleration? Just watch his goal against barcelona in last years champions league...
    As he is quite a big physical player, I find it strange he isn't used as an out and out lone stricker more.

  • Comment number 10.

    Too much, too young for Pato. He should have learned his craft in a league like France or Portugal - a good standard where someone with talent can flourish but also isn't susceptible to the intense criticism you would get in the Premier League or Serie A.

    I think if he had joined PSG - then his career might have taken off again. Chance to win trophies and play every week in a set-up which suits him.

  • Comment number 11.

    Amazing that the whole Player's Union took a stand, but I think it is a fair point. Here in Paraguay the big clubs are often 2-3 months late paying and it is worse when a player moves, they then have to wait ages to be paid by their own club. Recently a newly promoted club here, Cerro PF, went on strike over unpaid bonuses but it only lasted a couple of days and as no other teams joined them it was relatively small news.

  • Comment number 12.

    *old club!

  • Comment number 13.

    Another excellent blog Tim, one thing I look forward to every Monday.

    I find it incredible how football clubs all over the world have been allowed to get away with this for so long. Any other business and many would have gone under a long time ago. I really think football needs a wake up call to see that this isn't sustainable - who on earth lends them this money to rack up such large debts? In my experience all banks are risk averse at the moment, surely letting a football club run a multimillion pound overdraft would be very risky given Pompy, Rangers and Darlington's problems to name but a few.

    I hope the Peruvian players are successful in getting their clubs to start running a sustainable, profit making business - or at least one that breaks even and gives the players security.

  • Comment number 14.

    8 - low crowd at the vasco-flu game yesterday?
    31,000 was nearly double anything else in the competition - the two semi finals in midweek, both between big clubs, drew less than 20,000 and there's been nothing else over 10 - even big derbies. The games not involving the 4 big clubs usually draw less than 200, in some cases less than 50.

    some points - live on TV and, let's be honest, it's not really a final - it guarantess the winner a place in the final in may.
    rio has the problem of the maracana being closed for world cup work - the engenhao is much further out, and even though train access is good, in the psychological divide of the city, it isn't somewhere the rich are happy to go - and since the ticket prices are now so high they are the target market.

  • Comment number 15.

    Peruvian football clearly has the potential to do much better - we are talking about a country with a population of around 30 million.
    There have been some promising signs - some good young players coming through - Polo, Flores and Ampuero from Universitario, Ruidiaz who has just gone to Chile, Avila who has just joined Cristal from Hauncayo, Hurtado, Bazan and Ramos of Alianza.
    I was also delighted to see Juan Aurich of Chiclayo win the title last season - with ex Burnley keeper Diego Penny the hero - and important goals from Ysrael Zuniga, once of Coventry. This was the first time the title had ever gone north - Melgar of Arequipa in the south have also won it once, apart from that the title has never left Lima province. The rise of Aurich points to a genuinely decentralised future - so there is hope amid the chaos.

  • Comment number 16.

    Hi again, thanks for the response. I didn't know about the attendances in the semi finals so it's good there were 31,000 there. But even so it's only two thirds of the stadium so I was just a bit surprised when everyone around me in the ground was saying how important it was to them.

    Thanks for the explanation, I didn't know it wasn't somewhere some people prefer not to go. Hopefully that won't be as much of an issue in 2016.

  • Comment number 17.

    Great Article --- the same garbage that goes on in Peru is happening in Uruguay as well, I wonder too how a country like Bolivia manages to keep football afloat? Basically because a huge percentage of the fans pay discounted prices (sometimes for free) to see home-games, the Clubs never truly make a profit from the fans. In countries like Peru/Uruguay/Ecuador/Paraguay and Bolivia the standard of living depends largely on the strength of how strong or weak the dollar is... In Brazil for now their currency is strong while Argentina's bizarre structure (as you mentioned in your piece, the influence of the hooligan or ultra) is affected by standard of living costs and external violent cultural issues which give rise a voice and to some extent influence to the "ultra" --- Privatization might be the way to go, but then I think of all those rich Arab Owners that are the flavor in Europe, would they be so enthusiastic about buying lowly Bolivar or Cerro from Uruguay's league? And would there really be a mad-rush to invest in Tecnico Universitario from Ecuador? Private Ownership might be the solution to the big clubs in South America but the little clubs would get screwed over big time.

  • Comment number 18.

    Great blog Tim and certainly a hot topic right now. It's brilliant and refreshing that the players held firm in this case. They hold all the cards and should not accept not being paid properly. Although it's strange that a team founded by a university in particular do not appear to be educated enough to see the bigger picture!

    The issue is not only players' welfare, but of sporting fairness - it is inherently unfair for teams should to win titles with players who they cannot afford, but buy anyway, and then use the administration process to avoid paying theiur debts to players, other clubs and society in general.

    Some good comments on the Pato situation - perhaps the growth issues have played a part, but he just looks like he's not in a good place mentally. How would any 22 year old feel given a marriage breakup, a spate of injuries and having your club trying to sell you?

    He has also surely been a victim to the Milan formation and significance of Zlatan right now, and the way the team plays to his strengths. Pato has always looked better in a more mobile side IMO, without a static reference point like Ibra.

    I don't think his quality should be in any doubt though. Last season his goals were very important to Milan and he had some brilliant games in the past couple of years. I also remember reading a while back that he felt Allegri didn't talk to him enough, so maybe he also doesn't feel wanted at the moment. Surely it's almost guaranteed he'll be on the move in the summer?

  • Comment number 19.

    18 - many in Peru have voiced the suspicion that San Martin were looking for a pretext to get out - if that is true then they are acting with an unhealthy dose of hypocrisy

  • Comment number 20.

    I'm Brazilian and I think that your blog IS awesome. You are totally right about brazilian soccer, our head coaches just think about defense and to counter-atack

  • Comment number 21.

    Like Tim I too have heard the claim that the university wanted out of professional football and used this player strike as the pretext to do so. Actually this is a question I have wanted to ask Tim or anybody else here, there are many clubs throughout Latin America, but none in my own country of Argentina, where clubs are associated with universities, UNAM and UANL Tigres in Mexico, Universidad de Chile and Univeridad Catolica in Chile, San Martin in Peru, Tecnico Universitario in Ecuador are just a few examples. How exactly does that work, does the universities' rectors act as a board of directors of the club? Do these clubs have [i]socios[/i] (members)? I have always been curious about how these university associated clubs are organized.

    Soccer Futbol Forum

  • Comment number 22.

    Another fantastic blog tim.

    From this i get the impression that if these clubs were in english football they would be wound up and cease to exist.

    i feel sorry for those that run san martin team however the players are to strike over the overall poor financial management of football. Peru could be the catalyst for a collapse of football clubs in south america. could happen in europe it just needs a club barca, real madrid, man utd etc to go under and the players stop playing. for the mess its the fan.

    i bet the government will step in. there could be an argument that there is too much greed and money in todays football and not enough financial clout to keep a club running without going into the red.

  • Comment number 23.

    21 - I´ve been following Pums de la UNAM from afar for a few years now after travelling in Mexico. As I understand it, the club isn´t legally owned by UNAM. I don´t get exactly who does own it, hopefully somebody else can clarify on that point. They still play and have their cantera within the area of Mexico City set aside for UNAM and the association between the two is obviously still very strong.

    Historically the team was created by the university but they were amateur to begin with. I´m not sure when the link was ended, presumably when costs got too high sometime in the professional era.

    In addition to Tigres and Pumas there are also Los Tecos in Guadalajara, also a university team.

    ¡Dalé Pumas!

  • Comment number 24.

    Great blog Tim

    Interesting to see that Spain’s La Liga is not far from the Peruvian championship. In fact, they had a strike that lasted a week at the beginning of this season. I just wonder if things have improved or not?

  • Comment number 25.

    Tim, Pato is currently dating Berlusconi’s daughter. In fact, she is part of Milan’s board. I’d say that he has overcome his past marriage. But I can’t say how (or if) his present partner is affecting him. Any comments on that?

    I just can’t understand why Pato’s football can be such a rollercoaster.

  • Comment number 26.

    Could you comment on what is wrong with Kaka at Real Madrid? Unlike Pato, Kaka had a good pre-season last year but then he “disappeared”.

  • Comment number 27.

    Going back to last week's blog, Macnelly Torres and co made hay in the Uruguayan sunshine. 4-0 away from home. And while everyone is talking about La U being picked apart by european teams and their scouts, after a good Sudamericana campaign, is it the same case for last year's Libertadores losing finalists? On the other hand, Velez Sarsfield went far and they have started well this time round.

  • Comment number 28.

    #5. joao ddm

    I think Aguero has proved on numerous occassons this seasons that he can play up top by himself and his strength is unreal for a man of his size. I agree that Aguero plays in a different team with a different role. pato would do well playing wide right or left as a front three off Ibra.

    Unbelievable times in South American football. The MLS seems to have a good system from what Tim has put but can anyonme explain the draft system to me please.


  • Comment number 29.

    Tim, is it possible that the Peruvian players might ultimately be shooting themselves in the foot in their quest for financial accountability from the clubs?

    Might that not ultimately lead to a reduction in their wages and instead of being paid their present salaries albeit late on occasions, they might have to settle for half on time?

    Signori, the draft system the way I understand it is similar to that in NFL/AFL. Basically, the league owns all the players contracts. So when promising new players become available, usually from college in American football (not sure if it is the same in 'soccer') the teams which finished the lowest in the previous season get first pick of the most promising new players available.

    The idea is to create a more competitive league and ultimately a more marketable one naturally.

  • Comment number 30.

    Thanks for the response Tim. It does sound like a bit of a cop-out, but what a shame for a side that has won 3 titles in less than 10 years. It is also disrespectful to the striking players, without whom they will not have a game. Albeit it doesn't sound like they will have that many disappointed fans!

    #26 - I don't personally see anything wrong with Kaka, just a guy that needs to be playing every week now to get back to somewhere near his best and find a bit more sharpness. Not sure if he is still struggling fitness-wise but he does appear to be free of injury?

    I still think he has so much to offer for Brazil, but who knows. I think it's daft to include Ronaldhino but not Kaka and they should really give him a shot now with still 2 years to go before the WC. He is obviously not going to play every week for Madrid when Ozil is now their main playmaker, and a tremendous player.

    It would surely be better for him if he could get a move back to Italy in the summer and play every week, but I have no idea how likely that would be.

  • Comment number 31.

    Whats the standard of football like in South America. I was always led to believe it wasnt too good. However, with such interest in it it must be doing something right!!

  • Comment number 32.

    A great post as usual, Tim. Frankly, i dont know much about the South America, except for the 2 big names: Brazil and Argentina. Looking for more interesting news about them.

  • Comment number 33.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.


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