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The rise of the ‘barras bravas’ in Argentinian football

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Hew Fenshawe looks at the corruption and violence that now dominates Argentinian football, and discusses whether it can be eradicated.

Amongst the monotony of poverty, crime and unemployment that surrounds the working-class areas of Buenos Aires, there’s only one escape—football. The passion for the sport within these marginalized communities, owing in part to inspirational figures such as Maradona or Messi, has for many become more than just an appreciation of the game. The reality is that Argentinian football is now under the reign of the violent gangs of supporters, las barras bravas, whom now govern the sport.

The barras bravas have caught the media’s attention both inside and outside the country due to endless scandals and incidents that have become synonymous with this group of passionate aficionados. Attacks have included a ruthless attack by Boca Juniors fans upon an unsuspecting River Plate steward, who they beat to the ground in a matter of seconds, and the death of an Estudiantes supporter during a clash with the police at the end of last season. It is therefore no surprise to hear of the ban on away fans at Boca—River games this season, put in place to limit the violence on match days.

Corruption has also rooted itself firmly within Argentinian football, with violence inside the stadium no longer being the only issue. The barras bravas have been reported to stage illegal rackets outside the stadium, in addition to inflating ticket prices and car parking charges. These ‘soldiers’ of the clubs have claimed an undeniable power over the multi-million pound business that is Argentinian football. Some of the largest barras bravas, such as La Doce of Boca Juniors, reportedly receive up to 30% of transfer fees when a player leaves and up to 20% of some players’ paychecks.

Although it’s clear that the violence and hooliganism that occurs on a weekly basis should be regarded as a national emergency, the attitude from the footballing hierarchy itself begs to differ. The President of the AFA (Argentinian Football Association), Julio Grondona, wears a ring with the words ‘todo pasa’ or ‘anything goes’, hardly leading the AFA by example. There is an obvious lack of political courage and conviction when it comes to Argentina’s tackling of hooliganism. This question is therefore raised: if football is based entirely on a corrupt system then can it be saved? The simple answer is yes, however it seems to me that the real question is: does Argentina want to save itself?

England has shown that the eradication of hooliganism can be achieved through the appropriate measures: a greater Police presence on match days, security cameras both inside and outside the stadium, and the separation of home and away fans on a weekly basis, for example. Yet the Argentinian government and the AFA lacks the ability or desire to shut down the operations of the barras bravas. The recent news of a ban on away fans at the Boca-River match was a positive step in the right direction, but this has to be the first of many for the country to prise its beloved game away from the clutches of hooliganism.

Header photo: a policeman watches over Boca Junior fans at a 2001 game. Credit VANDERLEI ALMEIDA/AFP/Getty Images.