Critics cry foul as President brings free football to Argentina

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The Independent Football

In a deft offensive manoeuvre, President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner ended a two-week delay in the start of Argentina's football season by signing a $155m-a-year (£94m) deal to broadcast league matches on state television, kicking aside an existing and far less generous cable contract.

Ms Fernandez, who has suffered a string of political setbacks this year (notably in mid-term elections in June), signed the agreement with the Argentine Football Association.

"Today is a historic day for football, ... for Argentines and for the possibility of living in a more just and democratic society," the President declared, with Diego Maradona, an icon of her country's favourite pastime and the current national team coach, standing proudly beside her.

Matches will now be available on Channel 7, a terrestrial station which all Argentine fans can watch for free."It's not good ... that only those who can pay can watch football," Ms Kirchner said.

Though famed for turning out some of the best players in the world, most teams in Argentina are on the financial rocks with deep and growing debts, the result of poor management, corruption and a weakening international market for star performers. Many clubs have been unable even to pay salaries. Together, they also owe the government roughly $100m in unpaid taxes.

The crisis boiled over a week ago when the FA president, Julio Grondona, said he had torn up the previous broadcasting agreement worth only $70m a year that saw league matches broadcast on a pay-per-view basis on cable. The deal was not enough, he said, if the clubs were to survive.

Critics of Ms Fernandez and her husband, Nestor Kirchner, the previous president, are crying foul however. They warn that the football debacle has brought out the worst of the First Family's populist instincts and that, in a recession, the money committed to the 10-year deal should have been spent on more urgent items.

Nor has it gone unnoticed that one of the main partners in the discarded cable contract is Clarin, a Buenos Aires media group with a daily newspaper of the same name that has become increasingly critical of the Kirchner brand and the current government since Ms Fernandez's 2007 win. Clarin and its partners have already threatened to sue the FA for breach of contract.

But, with the first games of the new season finally due to kick off this weekend, the short-term impact for Ms Fernandez is likely to be only positive. When they cheer in the stand and, more relevantly, in living rooms across the country, many fans will also be cheering her for saving the season from disaster.