Leyland Video Club, close to the intersection of Yerbal and Avenida Boyacá in the Buenos Aires barrio of Flores was a fairly typical neighbourhood video store. Members would pop in, browse the rows of latest releases and take their choice to the counter. A chunky VHS tape was snapped into a generic branded case, the customer paid and went home to enjoy their selection.
Christian Bragarnik, who worked at the store, noticed that Leyland did well with the latest blockbusters — Ocean’s Eleven, Hannibal and Jurassic Park III flew off the shelves. Older and less mainstream titles were less in demand which left Bragarnik with hundreds of redundant VHS tapes and a lot of time on his hands. With some basic editing skills, Bragarnik began making compilations of football matches and player highlight reels, taping over old cassettes.
When video club member and Talleres winger Marian Monnroy mentioned one day that he was looking for a new club, Bragarnik put together a promotional tape. Ingeniously, he asked another Leyland member, Eduardo Fuentes, an ex-professional who had played in Mexico to circulate the video amongst his Mexican contacts.
Monrroy was signed by Mexican club Irapuato for an impressive fee of $400,000. More significantly, the move set in motion a chain of events that catapulted Bragarnik to the top table of Argentine football. Nearly twenty years later, Bragarnik is regarded as one of the most powerful figures in the Argentine game looking after the interests of over 100 players and several high profile coaches.
That influence now even extends to Spain’s top flight. In December of last year, Bragarnik took a 58% stake in Segunda side Elche. By July that stake had increased to 93%. A month later, at the very end of one of the most bizarre and chaotic Segunda seasons on record, Pere Milla’s winner sent Elche to Primera.
The clerk from the video store in suburban Buenos Aires was now a football club owner in one of the world’s biggest leagues. His journey there saw him encounter a cast of characters that wouldn’t have been out of place on some of the movie posters on the walls of the Leyland Video Club.
Player representation was undoubtedly more of a natural fit for Bragarnik than collecting late fees at Leyland Video Club. He’d graduated in law from the University of Flores and had played to a decent standard at fifth level Yupanqui. In the final game of the 1999 Primera D Apertura, Yupanqui beat Atlas 7-2 to drag themselves off the bottom of the table. Bragarnik played up front that day but couldn’t get on the scoresheet. In fact, he hadn’t netted all season. He figured that if he couldn’t score when his team hit seven, it was probably time to hang up his boots.
The Monrroy deal in 2001 proved to be a revelation and drew admirers from all sides. Irapuato’s parent club, Querétaro brought Bragarnik to Mexico as an adviser and he was soon made president of the ambitious football operation. The burgeoning enterprise came to an abrupt halt, however, when it was revealed that Querétaro’s ultimate source of funding was Tirso Martínez Sanchez – an associate of drug baron Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán. At Guzmán’s 2019 trial in New York, Martinez Sanchez – nicknamed ‘El Futbolista’ – testified that he’d helped smuggle 30 to 50 tonnes of cocaine into the United States between 2000 and 2003 on Guzmán’s behalf.
Bragarnik returned home to Argentina, working with second division clubs and players. His work soon saw him fall in with Julito Grondona, son of Julio Grondona who was the president of the Argentine Football Association for some 35 years until he died in 2014. Grondona senior was a Godfather-like figure in both Argentine and South American football. He even rose to become Sepp Blatter’s right-hand man as vice-president of FIFA. Indeed his legacy is so storied that a recently released eight-part Amazon Prime drama, El Presidente, features Grondona as the primary narrative device.
Bragarnik’s work with the Grondona’s beloved Arsenal de Sarandí led him back to Mexico once more. He travelled north to watch Arsenal’s impressive 3-1 victory over Guadalajara in the 2007 Copa Sudamericana. At the game, Bragarnik was introduced to Jorge Alberto Hank, president of the newly established Club Tijuana.
Bragarnik was recruited as an advisor to the ambitious club, who would be guided to an Apertura title in 2012 by future Celta Vigo manager Antonio Mohamed. Mohamed being one of several Argentine coaches from Bragarnik’s stable to have taken charge of los Xolos.
Of course, it wouldn’t be Tijuana if there wasn’t a colourful tale to tell. Jorge Alberto Hank is one of the 19 children of Jorge Hank Rhon, owner of Grupo Caliente a vast sports betting and casino operation and the owners of Club Tijuana.
Hank Rhon is one of Mexico’s richest men and a former mayor of Tijuana. An almost mythical figure, Hank Rhon is essentially a composite of the characters you would find when browsing for a new series on Netflix. Widely known for his extravagance, he maintains a populist touch. As evidenced by the 150 or so local children per day treated to visits of his private zoo around the time of his election as mayor. The zoo reportedly houses over 20,000 exotic animals — five times that of the San Diego Zoo just a few miles across the border.
In 2011, soldiers raided the Hank Rhon compound, seizing 88 guns, 9,298 bullets, 70 ammunition clips and a gas grenade. After nine days in custody, however, Hank Rhon was released with no charges much to the dismay of anti-crime activists.
In a rare interview, given to La Nación in 2016, Bragarnik addressed the questions that had been raised due to his Mexican connections. “I am a lawyer in sports law and I advise the club, which pays me a salary. Given my previous situation in Mexico and what Tijuana signifies in Argentina, the public imagination runs wild with the theme of drug trafficking.”
Bragarnik has established himself as the main conduit between Mexican and Argentine football. Something that has proven to be immensely profitable. When Bragarnik brokered Darío Benedetto’s move from Club América to Boca Juniors in the summer of 2016, he chose to forego any commission on the deal. Instead, he negotiated a higher cut of any future transfer — a move that paid off handsomely when Benedetto was purchased by Marseille for €14 million three years later. As well as a handsome commission, the Benedetto deals drew Bragarnik into the inner circle of Boca president Daniel Angelici.
His connections have even provided Diego Maradona with one of the more tranquil and successful spells of his management career. Bragarnik was the driving force behind Maradona’s season at Dorados de Sinaloa —another Grupo Caliente club — where they narrowly missed out on promotion.
Back in Argentina, Bragarnik’s empire has continued to grow. His partnership with Defensa y Justicia helped the club rise from the second division to title contenders and Copa Libertadores qualification which led to more demand for his services. Bragarnik now partners several clubs either officially or less formally in a similar style to that of the Portuguese super agent Jorge Mendes. Naturally, Bragarnik’s rapid and colourful rise to the top has drawn some suspicion.
Bragarnik remains phlegmatic in the face of rumours of his overreaching influence, as he explained to La Nación. “We live in a time when it is difficult to recognise that someone does well from hard work. It is always easier to say that you are doing well because you did something dirty or ugly. This happens a lot in Argentina.”
Answering allegations that Defensa y Justicia was being used to launder money he told Infobae: “That makes no sense. Defensa has one of the lowest budgets in the league. If we were bringing in players from River and Boca, then you could ask questions. The only money that gets laundered at Defensa is any money the players forget to take out of their tracksuit pockets.”
The city of Elche is somewhat of a hidden gem. Particularly for the crowds that land at the nearby airport and head in the opposite direction for the coast. Arriving at Elx Parc station, a stroll through a vast and beautiful palm grove takes you into the Moorish old town. More palm trees decorate Plaça Glorieta, the main square lined with cafes and restaurant.
The peaceful ambience there belies the fact that Elche is a decent-sized, working city. It’s an important hub in the footwear industry and its two universities attract a student population of over 20,000. The entire Elche-Alicante metropolitan area is home to over 800,000 people. With Hercules of Alicante floundering in Segunda B, Elche potentially commands a vast catchment if they can consistently bring Primera football to the area.
That sort of potential was no doubt what Bragarnik was explaining to his good friend Angelici as they took in Elche’s 1-1 draw with Lugo at the beginning of last season. The pair viewed the game from the presidential palco of Elche’s 33,000 Estadio Martínez Valero — the 12th biggest in the country and a regular stopping point for the Spanish national team. Coincidentally or not, the stadium would play host to the Argentine national team a month later as Bragarnik prepared to take a controlling stake in the club that December.
With that stake increased now at 93% and with Elche’s surprise promotion to Primera, it will be intriguing to see how Bragarnik’s management of the club develops. Some eyebrows were raised when Pacheta, the coach that had led them to Primera from Segunda B, was replaced by the Argentine Jorge Almirón. Almirón comes highly rated, having taken Lanús to a league title and a Copa Libertadores and is one of the most trusted coaches Bragarnik represents.
Despite Almirón’s appointment, Bragarnik explained to Las Provincias that his ownership is not merely an exercise in filling the squad with Argentine players. “The idea is to bring the best players in Spain, within the constraints of the budget. There are Argentine players who could help, but you have to be careful. This is another type of football, the grass is shorter and watered. The game is faster and it takes time to adapt.”
For all of the conjecture and colourful history that surrounds Bragarnik, it was an answer that implied a fundamental understanding of the details of the game. Bragarnik seems a serious football man who eschews the spotlight – something which stands in stark contrast to some of the takeovers in Spanish football in recent history.
Whatever happens, it’s been a remarkable journey from a video store clerk in the barrio of Flores to the agent of Diego Maradona. Although, perhaps it shouldn’t be such a surprise that someone from Flores could work their way up to represent a deity. After all, in 2013, local priest Father Jorge Bergoglio was inaugurated as Pope Francis.