Long-considered one of the ‘model clubs’ in Argentina’s football interior (that’s anywhere outside Buenos Aires and La Plata for you), the house of cards that is Colón de Santa Fe is collapsing at an alarming velocity. Tensions reached a head on Monday evening, when the entire playing squad refused to turn up for a home clash against Atlético Rafaela.
Why would supposedly professional footballers, paid handsomely for their trade, so casually let down their employers in this way? Well, for one thing it has been a while since the Colón first-team has seen any good news at the ATM. Some players have not been paid salaries for a whopping seven months, and Monday was the final straw for a squad that saw another promise for renumeration fall through.
So the Sabalero staff consulted with Players’ Union chief Sergio Marchi, considering the possibility of sticking two fingers up at their forgetful employers by missing the match. President Germán Lerche, who in classic rat on sinking ship style had been on a medical leave of absence while his club exploded, emerged from his ‘sickbed’ to try and convince his charges to take the pitch – only to be summarily kicked out of the meeting. The strike was happening.
As you can probably guess, fans of the Santa Fe club were not best pleased.
Around 50 supporters gathered to pelt the Colón HQ with stones, while the house of Lerche’s mother had two molotov cocktails launched at it. Club icon Iván Moreno y Fabianesi, meanwhile, woke to see his own domicile daubed with a fetching graffiti calling him “a piece of shit traitor”; all the encouragement the Spanish national needed to cancel his contract after three years at the club.
Lerche also took the hint, handing in his own resignation in a move that surprised few.
As alluded to at the start of the article, such a demise was unimaginable just two years ago. The club twice posted operating profits in their end of year statements, and pumped millions of pesos into redeveloping imposing home stadium ‘The Elephant’s Graveyard’. The Graveyard, officially known as the Estadio Brigadier General Estanislao López, was transformed into one of the best stadiums in Argentina, and was used as one of the sites for the 2011 Copa America.
But the whole thing was a mirage. A Colón fansite revealed that over the course of nearly a year from 2011-12, 28 cheques written by the club bounced due to lack of funds, totalling over 1 million pesos. A sign of the profligacy enshrined since Lerche took over in 2006 is summed up by the players brought in over that period; a total of 72, with not a single man sold on to recoup some of those losses.
The institutional debt runs at $120 million, while earlier this season it emerged that Mexico’s Atlante were owed US$600,000 for the services of Juan Carlos Falcón, who played over 50 games for the club between 2007 and 2008. World governing body Fifa came down on the side of the sellers, and slapped Colón with a six-point penalty.
The side can expect to be docked another three points for Monday’s shenanigans, while logically enough they also lose those which should have been in play against Rafaela. Those penalties leave Colón marooned at the bottom of the current championship, and without a win in 10 games (when they do show up) relegation looks almost a certainty at this point for the demoralised institution.
It is depressing to see one of Argentina’s biggest, best-supported clubs go down in flames, while those responsible wash their hands. But the case should serve as a wake-up call for the entire sport. The nation’s most famous teams operate with staggering amounts of debt, River Plate being a case in point. The so-called ‘Millonarios‘ will this week sign off on a balance sheet that shows a $59 million deficit, and a debt of $430 million which approaches that of a small country.
But buoyed by the supposed guaranteed funds of Fútbol para Todos and Julio ‘Father Christmas’ Grondona, neither River nor any other team can look further than what snazzy new signing or coach will keep the fans off their back. Pure populism, translated into football.
There is no easy solution for how to reverse decades of financial mismanagement across the league – that is, to stop short of calling it pure bare-faced robbery on the part of many presidents and directors. But Colón have shown that Argentine football clubs are not too big to fail; it is a warning that all should be taking on board.