In Wednesday’s blockbuster indictment of FIFA officials and sports marketing executives, there was one name glaringly unmentioned.
No, it was not Sepp Blatter. It was Julio Grondona.
As the longtime head of Argentina’s soccer federation, the AFA, Grondona served as FIFA’s senior vice president—Blatter’s No. 2– until his death in July 2014 at the age of 82. A member of FIFA’s executive committee from 1988 to his death and a former chair of the organization’s finance committee, Grondona was a long-time confidant of Blatter.
He also exerted direct control over the television rights at the center of Wednesday’s indictments. “He’s the great missing man because, basically, he was the one who managed all the television contracts at FIFA while he was alive,” said Hernán Castillo, an Argentine sports journalist and the author of Todo Pasa, an unauthorized biography of Grondona’s life at the nexus of soccer, business, and politics.
Known as “Don Julio,” Grondona cut a fearsome figure in the Argentine political landscape. Appointed to head the AFA in 1979 by Vice Admiral Carlos Lacoste, one of the leaders of the military junta that ruled Argentina during the Dirty War (1976 to 1983) that left up to 30,000 people disappeared or dead, he was the last major figure from that period still in power.
Grondona was known as a survivor, someone who could get along with military rulers as well as civilian governments of both the right and the left. He also controlled the Argentine league’s finances and TV contracts with an iron fist. That put him in close contact with three of those indicted on Wednesday for allegedly having “systematically paid and agreed to pay well over $150 million in bribes and kickbacks to obtain lucrative media and marketing rights to international soccer tournaments.”
Those three were Alejandro Burzaco, the head of Torneos y Competencias, an Argentine sports marketing business that had the rights to many Argentine league and national team games; and Hugo and Mariano Jinkis, who ran Full Play Group, an Argentine sports marketing business that holds the TV rights for several South American national teams and tournaments.
“All TV business with whatever businessperson passed through Grondona’s hands,” said Castillo.
Grondona’s relationship with Burzaco had a rocky start. In 2009, the Argentine government took the local pay-TV rights for the Argentine league away from Torneos y Competencias and gave them to Grondona and the AFA to start a government-subsidized free TV broadcast scheme called Fútbol Para Todos (Soccer for Everyone).
But soon the two built a working relationship, and Burzaco’s company provided production services to Fútbol Para Todos and held the international rights for the games. As of the beginning of this year, the company also held the production rights to friendly games for the Argentine national team.
Grondona’s funeral services were attended by Sepp Blatter, Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, and Argentine soccer star Lionel Messi. Also present was Eugenio Figueredo, a current FIFA vice president and executive committee member and former CONMEBOL president, who was indicted on Wednesday.
Presumably in jest, the Venezuela-based television network TeleSUR briefly illustrated a story about Grondona’s sendoff with a funeral scene image from The Godfather.
Grondona managed to avoid lasting corruption indictments during his lifetime, but he may very well have known that something untoward was going on in the selection of Russia and Qatar as hosts of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. Commenting from New Zealand on Wednesday, where he is coaching Argentina’s under-20 soccer World Cup, Grondona’s son, Humberto, said of the indictments, “I’m not surprised. From what I spoke about at the time with my father, we knew of certain irregularities that had happened with the elections in the cities for the World Cup.”
It’s impossible to know how Grondona would have reacted to Wednesday’s news. He was known to wear a pinkie ring with the words “todo pasa” inscribed. The translation: “everything passes.”