On 11th May, police shut down and inspected a school following a bomb threat. As a school with connections to the first division football club Independiente, it was widely suspected that football hooligans were behind the threat.
Just over one week later, another group of hooligans (barras bravas in Latin America) waited for Giovanni Moreno, a player for football team Racing Club, after a training session. Threatening to end his career if he did not leave the team, they pointed a gun at his knee and warned: “Things will get worse for you if you don’t.”
In the same month, Independiente’s vice-president Claudio Keblaitis and members of his family received death threats, while the death of Daniel Sosa, 21, grabbed the media’s attention. On Monday, the death of Gonzalo Saucedo, also 21, added to the exhaustive list of victims of football violence.
Argentina’s long-standing and highly complex problem of football violence is spiralling out of control, and has been thrown sharply into focus this year. Left unresolved for decades by the national government and the Argentine Football Association, (AFA) the issue has reached a tipping point.
Cantero and the Fight for Independiente
The recent election of Javier Cantero as president of Independiente in December 2011 has brought the issue of football violence to the fore. After pledging to put a stop to the money and support given to the club’s particularly violent band of barras bravas by his predecessor, Cantero’s personal campaign may have finally incited action against the problem.
“Cantero and what he is doing has created a lot of noise in the news, and we’re applauding him,” says Monica Nizzardo, from Salvemos Al Futbol (Let’s Save Football). Having founded the non-governmental organisation that has been working to tackle violence and corruption in Argentine football for the last six years, Nizzardo has been collaborating closely with Cantero for two years.
“We’re making a step forward with Cantero. In six years, there has only been one Cantero, and we need to move forward and continue with the struggle.”
Cantero met with members of the AFA and the national government last week to discuss solutions to the violence, but Nizzardo is doubtful of how willing the government are to tackle the issue.
“What I see is a farce. [The government and AFA] are trying to look like they’re doing something. They’ll say, we’ll do a meeting, but it’s a farce. Where’s the action?”
An Escalating Business of Violence, Money and Power
Far from a recent phenomenon, football violence goes hand-in-hand with the nation’s most beloved sport. With the first football-related death recorded in 1924, Argentina has almost witnessed a staggering 100 years of football hooliganism.
Emerging as a more organised brand of hooliganism in the 50s and 60s, each major and minor club in the country has a corresponding group of barras bravas, with some of the most violent hooligans affiliating with River Plate, Independiente, and Boca.
Originally, barras bravas provided guaranteed support for clubs at matches, as well as physical force on hand for club managers. Starting with certain privileges such as free transport to matches or an asado at a game, the power, influence and demands of the barras bravashave been growing at an alarming rate.
“As they began to demand more and more privileges, they would see how using violence got them things,” notes Nizzardo. “They would see how people became cowards in front of them, and give them what they wanted.”
Typically earning money through selling merchandise, tickets, refreshments, controlling car parking at higher profile matches, and often receiving a cut of a player’s transfer fee, hooliganism in Argentina is a lucrative business.
And it is business that is at the core of the issue. With many football clubs having two competing factions of barras bravas, the never-ending violence has become a battle for money and power.
“It’s not a fight of passion, or to fight for who is better in a rivalry,” says Nizzardo adamantly. “No, they are fighting for money. There are often two factions in the same barra. Obviously they are not fighting for their team. They are fighting for money and power, for the power that money gives them.”
A Tangled Web of Vested Interests
But while the phenomenon has been changing and the levels of violence increasing, the national government and the AFA have done nothing to solve the issue plaguing Argentine football.
For experts working on the issue, two hindering factors have become increasingly evident: impunity in the justice system and the longstanding and central issue of corruption – particularly the link between politics and football violence.
Gustavo Grabia, an expert on the subject and author of The 12: The True History of Boca Hooligans, has stated that “in Argentina, hooligans have worked for all the different political parties since they were created […] A lot of [barras bravas] supported the military government in the seventies, like “El Negro” Thompson in Quilmes, and then they became supporters of Alfonsín, Menem, Duhalde and now Kirchner.” With their different and often contrasting ideologies, it becomes clear that barras bravas work for money and impunity, regardless of the cause.
This unique link between politics and the barras bravas makes the issue of hooliganism in Argentina far more complex than football violence in other countries, particularly those in Europe.
European specialist Otto Adang summed up the complexity of Argentina’s own brand of football violence. In a talk given in 2009 he stated that “the European solution is useless in Argentina. European hooligans were misfits that got together in groups with no relationship with the government whatsoever. In Argentina, hooligans are part of the business: they take part in the buying and selling of footballers, manage things like merchandising […] and have astonishing political connections.”
Just as football managers would use barras bravas for a display of support, politicians similarly employ the hooligans to raise a flag at matches, or to boost numbers at demonstrations, in exchange for money, power and total impunity.
“A book came out in the Feria del Libro that spoke about INDEC [the national statistics office, suspected of irregularities], by writer Gustavo Noriega,” Nizarro recounts, “and the barra of Chicago club went there to break up the presentation of the book because it spoke badly about this government worker, [Domestic Trade Minister Guillermo] Moreno. We couldn’t believe what we were seeing, a barra openly working for Moreno.”
Football violence has become a much bigger issue than violence and danger in stadiums. The head of River Plate was recently told by a barra brava from his own club: “I respond to Moreno.” With hooligans no longer answering to club managers, but to politicians, the issue is not just in the hands of club managers, even if they carry a huge portion of the blame up until now.
“The relation with politics is making this harder. The heads of the clubs say, ‘I’m reporting things but they are working for political parties. Who is going to protect me?’” says Nizarro
In the case of the Argentine justice system, experts have continually criticised its passive role in football violence. With most football-related incidents going unpunished, the sense of impunity is high, and families of victims of football violence are all too often left with no sense of justice.
For Grabia, the justice system is just as at fault as the deep level of corruption, and states “we have to say that judges do not take this issue very seriously.” He notes that, with no special court for football violence, cases are often sent to courts that also deal with rape, murder, theft, or abductions. Since football-related incidents are typically categorised as “injuries in fight,” they are often not considered important enough. Grabia claims that “all the [club managers] know that they have impunity, and so do police officers.”
A Complex Problem with an Obvious Solution
Margaret Thatcher once asked the English footballer Bert Millichip: “What are you doing to keep our society free from your hooligans?” to which he replied: “What are you doing to keep your hooligans out of our football?”
With the issue of politics at the crux of the situation, and with football violence currently in the spotlight, Argentina now faces the huge challenge of eradicating a damaging but integral part of football.
The concrete solution is glaringly obvious to those such as Nizzardo and Grabia who have dedicated themselves to the issue: to permanently break the link between the barras and politicians. With a handful of other basic strategies such as official sale of tickets and identification of those entering stadiums, levels of violence and impunity can also be brought down.
“The biggest thing we need is the political will to disarm the mafias that are attached to each club, which are funded by businessmen who want the clubs to become businesses,” says Nizzardo. “They in turn are financed by politicians because they are used as a workforce to help them. The government knows it needs a strategic and integral plan, not just attacking the heads of the football clubs, who do also have to take part of the responsibility.”
The government undoubtedly has the resources and the ability to investigate the issue. But the real question is whether politicians are seriously willing to stamp out this business of violence that has claimed 261 lives so far.
What do Argentines think should be done about football violence? Click here to find out.