Sport clubs in the crosshairs?

Argentina’s austerity measures spark debate

Lionel Messi, dressed in his blue and white Argentine stripes, is raised aloft by a crowd of supporters. In one hand, he carries the FIFA trophy.
Argentinian football star Lionel Messi got his start with Club Atletico Newell's Old Boys, a sport club in Rosario [File: Martin Meissner/AP Photo]
Argentinian football star Lionel Messi got his start with Club Atletico Newell's Old Boys, a sport club in Rosario [File: Martin Meissner/AP Photo]

Buenos Aires, Argentina – Some of football’s greatest players have donned the blue-and-white jersey and played for Argentina’s national team: Lionel Messi, Diego Maradona, Juan Roman Riquelme.

But before they reached the international stage, they each had something in common: They took their first steps in Argentina’s vast network of neighbourhood sporting clubs or “clubes de barrio”.

These clubs, estimated to be nearly 20,000 in number, have become a point of contention under President Javier Milei, a self-described “anarcho-capitalist” who took office in December.

Milei has pushed for increased privatisation in Argentina’s economy, and even before he was elected, he set his sights on the country’s much-vaunted football clubs: Major groups like the Argentine Football Association currently require that their members be nonprofit civil associations.

“Do you prefer to continue in this misery, where we have increasingly worse quality football?” Milei asked radio and TV host Alejandro Fantino, defending the idea in 2022.

Community advocates, however, warn that privatisation — coupled with Milei’s steep austerity measures — could threaten the very existence of the neighbourhood clubs.

Ruben Marengo, the president of the Club Franja de Oro, told Al Jazeera that he sees Milei’s actions in office as part of a string of attacks the clubs have faced over the years.

The clubs “have been maliciously targeted by all neoliberal governments”, said Marengo, who described the neighbourhood institutions as part of the bedrock of Argentina’s democracy.

Pathway to privatisation

A child stands guard as goalie on an indoor soccer field.
Banners at Franja de Oro display the club's colours and speak to the members' sense of commitment [Melina Gomez/Al Jazeera]
Banners at Franja de Oro display the club's colours and speak to the members' sense of commitment [Melina Gomez/Al Jazeera]

On December 20, just 10 days after being sworn in, Milei used his newly minted presidential powers to issue a Decree of Necessity and Urgency — an executive action that takes immediate effect.

It was a sweeping decree, with no less than 366 articles, designed to deregulate the Argentinian economy amid spiralling inflation.

Among its measures was a legal change that allowed the sport clubs to convert to public limited companies, with private investors and the ability to list shares on the stock market.

In other words, the move paved the way for the clubs — and popular football groups, in particular — to shift from a nonprofit model to a profit-driven structure, if they chose to do so.

But the pushback was swift. Big-name clubs like Boca Juniors and its rival River Plate released statements, pledging to remain nonprofits despite the decree.

“Faithful to its origins and respectful of the clear principles it has defended for 120 years, Boca Juniors ratifies its character as a nonprofit civil association,” the club said in a statement. “Our club belongs to its people.”

River Plate was even more direct: “We reject public limited companies in Argentine football.”

The parts of the decree concerning the football clubs — articles 335 and 345 — quickly became ensnared in legal challenges, too. In January and again in March, judges ruled to suspend the articles, on the basis that there was no emergency to justify their inclusion in the decree.

‘Shock therapy’ for the economy

Young people use a work-out room in Argentina to lift weights.
Young men work out in Franja de Oro's weight room in Buenos Aires, Argentina [Melina Gomez/Al Jazeera]
Young men work out in Franja de Oro's weight room in Buenos Aires, Argentina [Melina Gomez/Al Jazeera]

But Milei and conservative members of Argentina’s Congress have continued to push for privatisation.

Florencia De Sensi, a representative in Congress’s Chamber of Deputies, said she and other members of the right-wing political bloc would advance a bill that would make the privatisation option law, bypassing the legal hang-ups with the decree.

“In Argentina, certain sectors resist change. Football is no exception,” De Sensi wrote on social media earlier this year.

She went on to compare club leaders to “mafia” members who “abuse” their nonprofit models. “How many clubs with multimillion-dollar contracts exist and are bankrupt or in the red?”

And just last month, another one of Milei’s allies in Congress, Juliana Santillan, pitched the idea of the clubs having foreign stakeholders to Chinese Ambassador Wang Wei.

“We know China is very interested in coming to see our football,” Santillan said, adding, “We are eager for investments.”

A close-up of Argentine president Javier Milei.
President Javier Milei has made reforms to Argentina's economy a top priority of his administration [File: Agustin Marcarian/Reuters]

Privatisation is a cornerstone in what Milei calls “shock therapy” for Argentina’s economy, which has struggled under the weight of triple-digit inflation and billions in international debt.

Currently, annual inflation sits at more than 276 percent, driving the costs of basic items out of reach for many families. In recent months, the Catholic University of Argentina (UCA) found that poverty has surged to 55 percent, partly as a result.

Another report, from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), estimated that seven out of 10 children in Argentina currently live in poverty.

But Milei and his supporters have insisted their measures are yielding results, including through the rollback of public spending.

Recent statistics show monthly inflation has slowed to 2022 levels, and this June, the government touted its fifth straight month of fiscal surpluses, as Milei strives to fulfil his campaign promise of achieving “zero deficit”.

Higher prices, fewer members

An aerial view of an indoor sports field, where children play soccer.
The clubs often offer fitness classes and an array of sports, including but not limited to, football [Melina Gomez/Al Jazeera]
The clubs often offer fitness classes and an array of sports, including but not limited to, football [Melina Gomez/Al Jazeera]

Still, the leaders of Argentina’s sport clubs warn that the austerity measures could have as devastating an impact on their survival as the push for privatisation.

Daniel Pacin not only serves as the president of the Argentine Confederation of Clubs, but he is also the secretary-general of Franja de Oro. The club is located in Pompeya, one of the most impoverished neighbourhoods in the capital of Buenos Aires.

Pacín told Al Jazeera clubs like Franja de Oro could face extinction due to the economic recession. Tariffs for water, electricity and gas have risen by 400 percent, he said.

That has increased operating costs for the club, which operates not only a sport centre but also a dance hall and a buffet-style cafeteria with snacks for sale. And while costs rise, neighbourhood residents have cut back on their spending.

“Local clubs are sustained through three means: membership fees, the buffet and renting out the event hall," Pacin pointed out.

"By this time in 2023, our event hall was already booked until December. Now, we have no bookings at all. Buffet consumption has dropped by 35 percent, and with the membership fee of 2,000 pesos [$2] per family, we can't cover our expenses.”

Privatisation will not solve the club’s budget shortfall, Pacín added. If anything, he believes the privatisation push could amplify the economic burden that clubs bear.

“When the state withdraws and stops providing [tax] credits and subsidies to the clubs, the costs of electricity, water and gas soar, economically burdening us,” Pacín explained.

While private ownership would not necessarily shutter the clubs, it could result in radical changes, including through the sale of land and higher fees, according to Pacin. That, in turn, could disenfranchise neighbourhood residents.

“Keep in mind that once a club — which is a nonprofit entity focusing on social sports — becomes a corporation, members still attend. They'll likely have to pay a higher fee, but they have neither voice nor vote,” Pacin said emphatically.

“That's why we insist: Clubs must belong to their members.”

A history of civic engagement

Boys in Argentina play soccer on an indoor field.
Sport clubs like Franja de Oro have reported that austerity measures threaten their nonprofit model [Melina Gomez/Al Jazeera]
Sport clubs like Franja de Oro have reported that austerity measures threaten their nonprofit model [Melina Gomez/Al Jazeera]

But with costs skyrocketing, little money is left for community outreach.

Daniel Valdez, a truck driver, belongs to the nearby Riachuelo Juniors Social and Sports Club, and he told Al Jazeera the club’s finances have grown bleak since Milei took office and government spending cuts took effect.

“Now that we haven't had any help for six months, the situation is difficult," he said.

In his club, the monthly social fee costs about 1,000 pesos ($1.10). Even so, Valdez said some neighbours cannot afford to pay. He himself does not know where to get the money to pay his club’s last water bill, which is 90,000 pesos ($98,79).

He and other sources who spoke to Al Jazeera described the clubs as anchors for poorer communities that lack state resources. If young people are unable to join neighbourhood clubs, Valdez fears they may instead join neighbourhood gangs.

For Marengo, the president of Franja de Oro, the sport clubs have a vital role in spurring civic engagement. In times of social isolation and individualism, he told Al Jazeera the local clubs “preserve empathy for others”.

The roots of Argentina’s neighbourhood clubs stretch back to the dawn of the 20th century, a time when civic spaces like public libraries were flourishing.

Back then, Argentina was experiencing waves of immigration from Europe, and the sport clubs often took the names of the immigrant communities that founded them.

Italians, for example, established clubs called “Deportivo Italiano”, and likewise, new arrivals from Spain baptised theirs “Deportivo Espanol”.

Academics like Joel Horowitz have also noted that the spread of the sporting clubs — with their deeply rooted local identities — coincided with voting reforms in 1912 that helped develop Argentina’s modern democracy.

Proponents view the clubs as community spaces deeply woven into Argentina’s social fabric, promoting sport, recreation and a sense of belonging.

The intersection of sport and politics

A boy from the Franja de Oro club sits on the floor of the indoor soccer field.
Many sport clubs in Argentina got their start close to the turn of the 20th century [Melina Gomez/Al Jazeera]
Many sport clubs in Argentina got their start close to the turn of the 20th century [Melina Gomez/Al Jazeera]

Marengo also describes them as a place of resistance. Now 72, he joined Franja de Oro in 1962, following in the footsteps of his grandfather who had been the group’s treasurer.

A decade later, in the 1970s, Argentina would descend into dictatorship, when the military and other right-wing forces took power. As many as 30,000 people were killed, as the dictatorship sought to wipe out political rivals, left-wing dissidents and anyone perceived as a threat.

Marengo himself was a leftist activist in his youth. Even though voting was prohibited under the dictatorship, he credits the clubs with keeping residents politically engaged.

“Neighborhood clubs served as the only venues for political discussions, effectively keeping the seed of democracy alive,” Marengo said.

“Democratic voting among club members made many realise that, through political debate, they could change their reality — even when the debate was about using a space for a soccer or volleyball field.”

Another member of Franja de Oro, a 77-year-old volunteer named Jorge Zisman, was also an activist at the time of the dictatorship.

Known by the nickname “El Ruso” or “The Russian”, he had been enrolled in the club since age two: His father, who was himself a member, signed him up.

Jorge Zisman stands in front of the trophy case at the sports club Franja de Oro.
Jorge 'El Ruso' Zisman helped organise activities at Franja de Oro during Argentina's dictatorship [Melina Gómez/Al Jazeera]

The club became pivotal to Zisman’s activism. He told Al Jazeera that, in the 1970s, the club’s basement screened movies that were otherwise censored by the government. He and other members also used the club’s attic to shelter political activists from persecution.

Clubs like Franja de Oro “have always had a political component”, he said, “as their essence is to build networks”.

That, he added, allowed them to be a bulwark against the far right, in both the past and present.

“This resistance quality is not only observed during dictatorships but also during neoliberal economic crises, where the prevailing narrative is that of individualism,” Zisman said, in a nod to Milei’s administration.

Pacín, Franja de Oro’s treasurer, said the clubs’ ability to survive turmoil indicate the value of the community-based model — something he felt privatisation advocates would do well to note.

"Time has shown that neighbourhood clubs have always found a way to move forward,” Pacin said. “If they have been open for 120 years, we must be doing something right. Perhaps it is the big businessmen who should approach us to ask how we achieved this."

Source: Al Jazeera