On 9th October, Pablo Martín Gómez was stopped at traffic lights on the way to his girlfriend’s house in Rosario. A motorcycle pulled up alongside his vehicle and, without saying a word, one of the riders shot the driver four times. Before falling into a coma from which he would never wake up, Gomez managed to call a friend saying: “They found me. They shot me.”
Though the incident occurred away from any stadium, investigators suspect that Gomez is yet another victim of the unrelenting violence that plagues Argentine football. In a country where the beautiful game is sacrosanct, the action on the pitch is all-too-frequently overshadowed by the brutal antics of the barra bravas (meaning ‘tough gangs’, the Latin American term for football hooligans).
According to NGO Salvemos al Fútbol (Let’s Save Football), Gómez, a former member of Newell’s Old Boys’ barra brava, was the 243rd victim of football violence in the country. Newspaper reports suggest the 29-year-old may have murdered by members of his old gang, which has been embroiled in a fierce leadership battle since long-standing chief Roberto ‘Pimpi’ Camino was imprisoned earlier in the year. The manner of his execution leaves little doubt that the modern barra brava is far more sophisticated and sinister than the band of thugs more commonly associated with football violence.
The Evolution Of The Barras
Football-related deaths are not a new phenomenon in Argentina: the first reported incident occurred in 1924, when a Uruguayan fan was shot by a Boca Juniors sympathiser. But investigative journalist and author Amílcar Romero, widely considered the country’s leading expert on football violence, identifies 1958, and the killing of River Plate fan Alberto Linker, as the first appearance of the ‘organised, professional and institutionalised’ barra brava recognised today.
The transition was supported by directors who proved willing to offer certain privileges – beginning with free entry to matches – to keep the ‘rulers of the terrace’ as an ally. With a foot in the door, barra bravas quickly extended their influence, demanding a greater input in decision-making and soliciting more and more concessions from officials, coaches and even players.
Those who didn’t follow the rules would lose the support of the stands. In a famous example, ex-Boca Juniors striker Jorge Rinaldi recalls how his life became a nightmare after he refused to attend a players’ dinner organised by La Doce (Boca’s barra): “from that moment, every time I stepped foot on the pitch I was hit by waves of insults from the stands where the barra stood. It was as if I were one of the most hated enemies and not someone defending the club that they claim to love.”
Rinaldi’s ‘no’ appears to be more the exception than the rule. Today, on top of free admission and travel to away fixtures, the barras, especially in the bigger clubs, earn a comfortable living from the sale of merchandising and refreshments, the control of parking around the stadium, and the sale of tickets (at inflated prices). This is sometimes topped up with income generated by more covert means: sales of drugs, a cut of player’s transfer fees and cash-in-hand jobs within the club.
The exact sources of finances are difficult to pinpoint, but with such a lucrative business operation on offer for those in charge, it should be of no surprise that distinct factions of the same barra compete for a bigger slice of the pie. And in a world where violence is considered capital, the consequences are almost certain to be tragic.
Gomez was the eighth casualty of intra-barra fighting in 2009. And it could easily get worse: alongside the trouble at Newell’s, the barra bravas of Estudiantes and Huracán are also involved in a long-running battle for dominance. In March of this year, competing groups within Boca Junior’s La Doce exchanged fire on a busy junction by Parque Lezama, wounding an elderly lady who was eating lunch at a nearby McDonalds.
In the most high-profile example of recent years, a dispute within River Plate’s ‘Los Borrachos del Tablón’ (the drunks in the stands) descended into a full-blown war early in 2007, allegedly over the split of the estimated $50,000 received from the sale of Gonzalo Higuain to Real Madrid. Though River president José María Aguilar distanced himself from the incidents, investigators revealed that more than half of the barra were on the club’s payroll. Among them was Gonzalo Acro, who earned $5,700 a month working at the swimming pool in River Plate’s sports complex. In August 2007, Acro was shot four times as he left a gym in Buenos Aires – an mafia-style assassination that would set a disturbing precedent.
Fighting A Losing Battle
The evolution and escalation of violence at the hands of the barra brava clearly points to a failure on behalf of the state and security forces to stamp out hooliganism from the sport. So far, the Argentina Football Association, AFA’s main strategy involves using more police and security forces to physically keeping opposing fans apart. In top division matches, blocks of empty seats are used as a buffer zone to separate the two groups of supporters. In lower league clubs, visiting fans are barred from stadiums altogether. The latest La Plata derby between Gimnasia and Estudiantes was played out in an empty arena due to fears of fighting among the rival barra bravas.
While this approach may prevent disturbances in the stadium during a game, it is ineffective against barra brava in-fighting and besides, according Salvemos al Fútbol data, three quarters of football-related deaths occurred outside the ground. Worse still, a heavy police presence is likely to incite more violence if officers are unable to maintain order without becoming the aggressors. The 19 football-related deaths that have been directly caused by police repression is evidence that this isn’t always the case in Argentina.
Beyond the questionable capacity of those in uniform, sociologist and sports journalist Sergio Levinsky believes policies based upon exclusion only serve to reinforce a culture of incompatibility in Argentine society that stems from the series of political, economic and moral crises the country faced in the last half century.
The scars of this difficult period – particularly the seven years of state-sponsored terrorism at the hands of a brutal military regime – are visible in the world of football today. “These days, one set of fans will insult the other by saying ‘you don’t even exist, you don’t exist’. This is what the military dictatorship did with the ‘disappeared’. It imposed a certain way of looking at others, of not even recognising another person’s right to exist.” For Levinsky, AFA’s security policies reflect this social phenomenon: “It’s another way of denying existence, this time of violence in football.”
See No Evil
Levinsky’s idea of denial fits with the patent lack of political courage or conviction to eradicate football violence, neatly summed up by the inscription “todo pasa” (anything goes) on the ring worn by long-serving AFA president Julio Grondona. Club presidents, police chiefs and local government officials are quick to distance themselves from responsibility in the aftermath of a violent tragedy, preferring to protect their own image rather than work together to find a lasting solution.
In June, Interior Minister Aníbal Fernandez (now cabinet chief and official spokesman for the Kirchner government), argued that the killing of two Huracán barra bravas was not football-related, given that the attacks happened four hours after the game against Arsenal de Sarandí. When a fierce terrace brawl among River’s ‘Los Borrachos’ in March 2008 left one fan in a coma for a week, the subsequent police record stated that the man’s injuries were the result of an epileptic fit at the entrance to the stadium. Even when a subsequent investigation by sports journalist Gustavo Grabia unearthed photographs that proved that the man was inside the stadium when the fight broke out, no one launched a follow-up investigation.
These weak cover-ups of football violence are largely the result of widespread and entrenched corruption in Argentina, according to Pablo Tesoriere. His new documentary film ‘Fútbol Violencia S.A.’ portrays the barra brava as the “visible face” of an “anonymous society, dedicated, at whatever cost, to control the dirty side of football”. For Tesoriere, current policies are focused on the wrong area: “You won’t solve anything just by throwing barras in prison – there is a series of social networks behind them [...] We need to focus on the internal relationships [the barras have] with club presidents, trade unions and politicians.”
Traces of these shady networks are relatively easy to find. In the superclasico between Boca Juniors and River Plate at the Bombonera earlier this year, the opposing barras to temporarily put aside one of football’s fiercest rivalries to reveal giant flags supporting the Kirchner government’s campaign to make televised football available on public channels. “Clarín: Football is a passion, not a job” was the message from River’s barra brava, supposedly without a trace of irony.
Elsewhere, prominent members of Independiente’s barras are frequently photographed alongside Hugo Moyano, the leader of one of the most powerful unions in the country. The leader of Estudiantes’ barra, Fabián Giannotta, currently under arrest on suspicion of homicide, was formerly a police officer in the provincial of Buenos Aires. When current leader Mauro Martín took control of La Doce in 2007, his first task was to introduce himself to the police department in La Boca.
This complex overlapping of vested interests of barras, club presidents and politicians makes it almost impossible to break the code of silence that surrounds the business of football. It’s a situation that Argentina has dealt with before, says Levinsky, and on an even grander scale. “In the military dictatorship [of 1976-83], squads would kidnap people from their homes in the middle of the night, and when family members went to the police station to report it the next day, their statement would be taken by one of the kidnappers. It’s the same in football: if the police you report a crime to are involved with the barra brava, you are not going to find justice.”
Let’s Save Football
Mónica Nizzardo, founder and president of Salvemos al Fútbol, witnessed first-hand the seemingly fruitless pursuit of justice for crimes committed by barra bravas. While working in the press department at Atlanta, a third-division club, Nizzardo was shocked to discover how dominant the barra were, even arranging the player’s contracts without the board of directors ever seeing them.
“I soon realised that if I didn’t denounce what was going on, I’d become complicit,” says Nizzardo. Her decision provoked an unsavoury response. On 17th February 2004, a known member of the barra, on conditional release from jail, entered the club offices while she worked and proceeded to destroy computers and windows with a hammer. “This kind of damage costs a fortune for a small club like Atlanta,” says Nizzardo, before adding an afterthought, “and I was frightened that the hammer blows were coming my way.”
Nizzard wanted to report the crime, but no one in her club would support her. One director told her he couldn’t back her statement because “they know which one my car is”. Others, including at the local police station, warned her about washing dirty laundry in public.
Eventually Nizzard found an ally in former judge Mariano Bergés, who had also found himself isolated and, ultimately, frustrated in his efforts to bring barra bravas, and the club directors who support them, to justice in the 1990s. Together they founded Salvemos al Fútbol in 2006, with the explicit objective of denouncing all cases of violence and corruption to the judiciary. Most of the cases under investigation in the courts today are the result of their work.
A Glimmer Of Hope?
Progress is painstaking in the Argentine judicial system, but SAF has made some important breakthroughs. One example is Osvaldo Domínguez, a policeman and active member of the Comittee for Sports Security in the province of Buenos Aires, who was detained in September for allegedly working illicitly with the barra brava of Estudiantes. But claiming the scalp of one corrupt person is not the same as exposing the rotten core of a corrupt system.
It is ironic, given recent events, that Newell’s Old Boys could be the inspiration for change. In December 2008, notoriously corrupt club president Eduardo Lopez was finally voted out by angry fans – real fans – after ruling for 14 years without elections. It’s a small step in the scheme of things, but meaningful nonetheless as an example of how real football fans, who cheer from the terraces out of love and not for money, can induce positive change.
Argentine football can still be saved; the big question now is whether it wants to be.
For a detailed look at the evolution of Boca Junior’s infamous barra brava, read (in Spanish) Gustavo Grabia’s ‘La Doce: The True Story Of Boca’s Barra Brava’.