Mexican soccer and politics vie for viewers in ugly spat

Mexico's scheduling conflict between a presidential candidates' debate and a soccer quarterfinals match got ugly Tuesday, amid accusations of skullduggery, greed and authoritarianism.

It seems to have been turned into a grudge match, between whether Mexicans will tune in to watch politicos batting around ideas, or two of the nation's best teams kicking around a ball.

Electoral authorities made plans two weeks ago to hold the debate at 8 p.m. this Sunday.

Then on Monday, Mexico's soccer federation announced it will hold a first-division quarterfinals match between Tigres and Morelia at the same time.

Leonardo Valdes, the head of Mexico's electoral institute, condemned some broadcasters' decision to show the soccer game and not the debate.

"This sends a bad message," Valdes said. "I think it has been proven that these matches can be broadcast at other times. Traditionally on Sundays they have been at other times, not so late."

Valdes said authorities won't change the debate, even though one network owner, Ricardo Salinas Pliego of TV Azteca, suggested in a Twitter posting that the soccer match will easily win the ratings race.

"If you want to see a debate, watch it on (rival network) Televisa. If not, watch soccer on Azteca, I'll tell you about the ratings the next day," Salinas Pliego wrote in a Twitter account linked to his corporations' websites.

Valdes suggested the networks may still be resentful about a 2007-2008 electoral reform that requires stations to air campaign ads without payment as a public service, when they used to be able to charge politicians for those slots.

"It did affect their economic interests," he said.

Leftist presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who is roughly tied for second place in opinion polls, suggested something more sinister than a love for soccer is afoot.

Lopez Obrador said Tuesday it appears television stations are playing down the debate because they favor front-runner Enrique Pena Nieto, who has the least to gain from debating rivals over whom he holds a wide lead.

"If they do not broadcast the debate, it will be clear the television networks are trying to impose Pena Nieto in the presidency," Lopez Obrador said.

Holding out a carrot and a stick, Valdes said stations that air the debate will be exempted from the public service ad requirements during the Sunday slot, and added that soccer fans will watch a game broadcast punctuated by campaign ads.

Social networks buzzed with criticism of the TV Azteca decision. "Salinas Pliego gave his answer, the only thing he cares about is ratings, and what about keeping the public informed?" said one commentator.

Salinas Pliego, and some other social network users, depicted it as an issue of freedom to decide what to watch.

"This is a debate indeed, between a small group of authoritarian tweeters, and citizens who are free to vote for what they want to see," he tweeted.

The only thing certain, some noted, is that there may well be unnecessary roughness on whichever channel Mexicans decide to watch Sunday.

"On Sunday there will be rough play, hand-balls, unfair officials, and uncalled penalties," said one tweet. "There will also be soccer on Ricardo Salinas' channel."