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Argentine soccer stopped by debt

In June, I wrote about how many of the world's biggest soccer clubs are facing crippling debt. Over the summer, several individual clubs have faced disbandment over their debts, and now an entire league is facing a season being postponed, as Argentina's Football Association has been forced to suspend the beginning of its fall season. Many of the top division's clubs are have very large debts, including its most famous clubs, Buenos Aires-based River Plate and Boca Juniors.

Latin American football is a tenuous financial affair at the best of times; club directors are hired and fired by a club's members (anyone can pay a membership fee), encouraging lavish promises to the membership, and there is little regulation of financial practices. Furthermore, the die-hard fan clubs known as "Barra Bravas" have become more assertive and violent in recent years, leading to falling attendances (the AFA president's office was attacked within two hours of the postponement, with about 100 people throwing stones and breaking windows). With the global recession pushing down revenues even further, all that the AFA can do is try negotiating a larger TV rights payment, and it's unclear at this point how long that will take.

If the season is delayed for too long, the damage to the league's talent level could be critical: while the Argentine league is no longer among the world's best, like many South American leagues it remains a key breeding ground for top talent (big stars who got their start in Argentina include Diego Milito, Carlos Tevez, Javier Mascherano, Diego Forlan and Sergio Agüero). But a long delay could lead to many top prospects moving to leagues in Mexico, Brazil, and the United States, where they could continue developing while actually getting paid. Still, those angry supporters shouldn't worry too much - as a new book points out, 97 percent of the 88 clubs that started England's football league in 1923 still exist today, whereas less than the world's biggest companies then have survived that long. 

ALEJANDRO PAGNI/AFP/Getty Images

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A Russian-style NGO crackdown in China

Beijing appears to be following the Kremlin's lead in a campaign to sever NGO's from foreign sources of funding. The Christian Science Monitor reports:

It began with a tax notice for $200,000. Three days later, on July 17, officials raided the group's Beijing office and seized its computers. Then, just before dawn on July 29, police detained its founder, Xu Zhiyong at his home

On the same day, government officials went to the office of Yi Ren Ping, another nongovernmental organization, and confiscated copies of its newsletter on the grounds that it didn't have a publishing license.[...] The two NGOs are among a growing number here using the law to hold authorities to account on issues such as food safety, patient rights, and illegal detention.

But they share another common thread: Both received grants from American and other foreign donors. The tax fine for Open Constitution Initiative, the group headed by Mr. Xu, was assessed largely on a donation from Yale Law School. Xu, a lawyer and elected legislator, is being detained on suspicion of tax evasion, according to an OCI official.

The harassment of these and other foreign-funded NGOs in Beijing has raised fears of a Russian-style squeeze on civil society. Since 2006, Russia has stripped the tax-free status of many foreign foundations and forced NGOs to report their activities in exhaustive detail, while accusing foreign-funded human rights groups of being Trojan horses for Western powers. It recently amended its NGO law, easing some of these controls.