By Luis Ampuero
BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Argentine Football Association president Julio Humberto Grondona died in hospital on Wednesday at the age of 82, South American soccer's governing body CONMEBOL said.
Grondona, who became AFA chief in 1979 during the former military dictatorship and was senior vice-president of world soccer's governing body FIFA, died at the Mitre Sanatorium in Buenos Aires after suffering an aortic aneurysm.
He was rushed to hospital early on Wednesday but died shortly after midday before doctors could carry out surgery.
"Julio Humberto Grondona has died, one of this continent's most distinguished directors of recent times in the management of the Argentine Football Association," CONMEBOL said.
In a statement it sent its condolences to Grondona's family and everyone involved in Argentine football.
FIFA president Sepp Blatter wrote on Twitter: "Very sad at the loss of a great friend. Julio Grondona has left us at 82 years of age. Today I embrace his family. Rest in peace."
AFA vice-president Luis Segura has taken charge of the Argentine game's governing body and reports said the start of the league season scheduled for this weekend could be postponed.
"This is something very painful regardless of the differences one might have had (with him)," former Argentina coach Cesar Luis Menotti, to whom Grondona gave a new deal after his team's World Cup victory in 1978, told broadcaster TyC Sports.
Grondona, who presided over Argentina's second World Cup victory in Mexico in 1986, rose to the highest position in the Argentine game from the presidency of leading first division club Independiente.
He and his son Humberto, Argentina's under-20 team coach, both said earlier this year Grondona would stand down in 2015.
"One's destiny is with God," Grondona was quoted as saying when asked how much longer he would remain in the position.
"Don Julio", as he was known in Argentina, made friends and enemies in equal numbers with his controversial style of management in a domestic game in which clubs were impoverished and the AFA relatively wealthy.
Grondona, head of FIFA's finance committee, ran into trouble with England's FA, calling them liars and pirates over criticism of FIFA at a congress in Zurich in 2011 and later apologized in a letter to former English FA chairman David Bernstein.
Grondona was often involved in spats with former captain and coach Diego Maradona yet named him in charge of the team for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, then sacked him when the team failed to progress beyond the quarter-finals.
Argentina captain Lionel Messi sent a Facebook message regarding Grondona, who had urgently set up a friendly for him to play in the national team when the Barcelona ace was being wooed by Spain.
"Very sad day for football, for all of Argentina and for me ... I want to send my condolences and a big hug to all his relatives and friends. Lio," Messi wrote.
Grondona was on the verge of appointing the 10th national-team coach of his long reign. Alejandro Sabella was reported on Tuesday as having stood down after steering Argentina to the final of this year's World Cup on July 13.
His last public appearance was on Tuesday night outside AFA's downtown headquarters, where reporters asked him if he could convince Sabella to stay on as he wished.
"If the bride doesn't want to, you can't," Grondona said. "See you soon."
(Writing by Rex Gowar, editing by Stephen Wood)