Argentine Fans Cheer Change In Soccer TV Rights

Argentina's government has nationalized the television contract that the country's soccer league had with cable television. The president's decision delighted millions of Argentine fans, who previously were excluded from the TV audience because they couldn't afford the cable fees. Now they're watching games for free.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Presidential politics in Argentina have become intertwined with soccer, or football. When the Argentine Football Association failed to get more money for the broadcast rights to its games, President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner stepped in. So now for the first time in years, soccer-crazed fans are watching the national pastime for free. And for a president with low approval ratings, it has delivered a rare public relations victory.

NPR's Juan Forero reports from Buenos Aires.

JUAN FORERO: Villa Fiorito is not like the leafy, elegant neighborhoods familiar to tourists who come to this capital.

(Soundbite of children playing)

FORERO: It's a slum on the outskirts where boys play soccer on a small concrete patio. The national pastime is, in fact, an obsession here. Some of Argentina's most accomplished players first learned how to play on Villa Fiorito's dusty streets and backlots. Among them, Argentina's greatest player - Diego Maradona, who grew up in a dilapidated house that still draws visitors. But aside from pick-up games on forlorn lots, residents here could not afford to watch televised futbol, as the game is known in Latin America. You had to have cable or purchase games on pay-per-view. Ruben Breth(ph) is a 37-year-old father of six who lives for the sport.

Mr. RUBEN BRETH: (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: To calm our anxiety over missing the big games, he says, we'd watch them in local pitches or in neighborhood bars. Until now.

President CRISTINA FERNANDEZ DE KIRCHNER (Argentina): (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: President Cristina Fernandez De Kirchner stepped in this summer. In a nationally televised speech she said the government had the duty to provide free broadcasts for soccer for those who couldn't afford to watch on television.

She also said the government's move would make Argentina more democratic. She went so far as to compare the broadcast contract held by the Grupo Clarin media company with the dictatorship that ruled Argentina in the early 1980s. For months now, the Clarin newspaper has pummeled the president for her handling of the economy. Marcelo Bombau, though, has a different take. His company, D-I-C(ph), had a joint venture with Clarin and the rights to broadcast games until 2014. He said the soccer federation president, Julio Grondona, unilaterally broke the contract.

Mr. MARCELO BOMBAU (Argentine Media Personality): And Grondona would never have terminated this agreement if he had not had another agreement in his back pocket. What he did basically was request more than a 200 percent increase, demand that we gave him an answer in 24 hours. It's completely impossible.

(Soundbite of radio broadcast)

Mr. VICTOR HUGO MORALES (Radio Commentator): (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: On Continental Radio, where talk of soccer reigns, the government's move has been met with approval. Victor Hugo Morales is the tall, bookish soccer commentator at the station and an authority on the sport. He says the government's paying $155 million a year, double what D-I-C paid.

Mr. MORALES: (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: He says that's good for the league and good for Argentina, because 20 million people now see big games, up from three or four million before. Among those new viewers is Ruben Breth. He is the man in Villa Fiorito who had been frustrated by his inability to see televised games.

(Soundbite of broadcast)

FORERO: On a recent day, he invited 15 friends to watch the match in his small cinderblock home.

Mr. BRETH: (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: Breth says he'll thank the government forever because soccer is now in his home.

(Soundbite of cheering)

FORERO: A striker suddenly scores and Breth and his friends go wild. It's one of many goals that recent afternoon, as game after game is broadcast for all to see.

Juan Forero, NPR News.

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