Argentine govt to pay millions for soccer TV rights
* Argentina gov't to pay $155 million to broadcast games
* Opposition questions use of state funds during slowdown
* Cash crunch delayed start of soccer season
BUENOS AIRES, Aug 19 (Reuters) - Argentina's government has agreed to pay some $155 million to broadcast soccer for free on television, a move which critics said smacked of populism and again increased state control over the economy.
The Argentine Football Association, or AFA, said President Cristina Fernandez's government would shell out 600 million pesos a year to televise games on broadcast TV channels -- more than twice what a private cable company paid previously.
"That's the figure given by the AFA president, so we assume it to be correct," association spokesman Ernesto Cherquis Bialo told local radio.
Opposition politicians have criticized the government for putting state funds into soccer at a time when the global economic slowdown and inflation are raising concerns about poverty rates in Latin America's No. 3 economy.
They also said it was another sign of expanding state meddling in the economy.
Fernandez and her husband and predecessor, former President Nestor Kirchner, have increased the state's role in various sectors, including a nationalization of private pensions funds and the country's biggest airline last year.
Cherquis Bialo said the broadcast deal would be a good business for the state.
"The state isn't going to subsidize football. The state's going to make a business out of it ... the state's going to make money, which will allow it to redistribute it in other areas," he said.
The global financial crisis has dried up a major source of funds for Argentina's debt-laden soccer clubs as European teams pay less to acquire South American players. The clubs have also been accused of mismanaging their finances.
The cash crunch even delayed the start of Argentina's soccer season, which had been due to begin on Aug. 14, after clubs fell behind on players' wages and taxes. The season is now due to begin on Friday.
The AFA last week ripped up its contract with TSC, which previously broadcast games on paid cable or satellite channels. TSC had refused to pay more for the broadcast rights.
Controversy over the government's foray into soccer has been fueled by TSC's links to the media conglomerate Grupo Clarin (CLA.BA), whose newspaper has been increasingly critical of Fernandez's government. Grupo Clarin holds a stake in TSC.
($1 = 3.8725 Argentine pesos) (Reporting by Nicolas Misculin; Writing by Helen Popper; Editing by Phil Stewart)
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