The Beautiful Game Breaking Bad
By Nick OlleJuly 23, 2012
What happens when you stand up against a culture of violence and corruption in a game that is the national passion? You'd better be brave.
For all the wrong reasons, 2010 was a record year in Argentine football. The star-studded national team underperformed at that year's World Cup, but the exceptional statistic came from outside the field of play - 11 deaths in football-related violence. Excluding 1968, when 71 people died in a single day in a tragic stadium crush, this is the highest number in the nation's history.
Halfway through 2012, this shameful figure has already been equalled, bringing the total number of recorded deaths in Argentine football to 269.
Taking on the Hooligans of Argentina's football scene
Now, as in 2010 and every other year in living memory, one sinister presence looms large over the violence: Argentina's football mafias, the barras bravas.
These are no normal football hooligans.
Unlike their English counterparts, for example, who emerge on game days with a skinful of liquor, spoiling for a fight with opposing fans, the barras bravas (it is both a collective and singular noun) are also part of the 9-to-5, seven-days-a-week business of football in Argentina. That is to say that while English hooligans are for all intents and purposes outside of the system, the barras bravas are intricately involved in the system.
Each of the clubs in Argentina's top divisions has a barra brava (of anywhere up to 300 members, depending on the size of the club) that meddles in — and profits from — the buying and selling of players, merchandising, ticket sales and parking near stadiums. This extortion is at least tolerated, and in some cases facilitated, by the clubs' management. Without so much as kicking a ball or carrying out any official function, these people live off football.
The intimidation extends even to the players representing the clubs the barras bravas members profess to love. Former Boca Juniors forward Jorge Rinaldi — a player whose talent earned him a place in Argentina's national team — was effectively forced out of the club in 1986 for resisting the barra's attempts to extort from him. After refusing to attend a dinner organised by Boca's barra — known as La Doce (The Twelfth Player) — Rinaldi was subjected to constant abuse, both on and off the pitch, regardless of his performances. "Imagine if guys that you don't know approach you every day insisting that you give them money," Rinaldi says to me at the training ground of his first club, San Lorenzo, where he now works. "This is how Argentine football is." His case is exceptional only in as much as he stood his ground.
On game days the barras bravas are easy to identify. The visiting barra members arrive at the stadium in buses provided by their club and police usher them to the designated "away", standing-only section behind one of the goals. They enter bearing drums and giant flags (also provided by the club) and, often, flares. The home barra's corresponding paraphernalia will already have been set up behind the other goal by the time they enter — to rapturous approval — as homecoming heroes. Many young fans ask for autographs and photos with barra leaders. While it can be difficult for supporters to bond with players, who come and go, it is easy to identify with barra members as mainstays of their club. Oh, and they also deal in drugs.
What's more — and here's the kicker — these gangs have astonishing political connections. In the words of journalist and barra brava expert Gustavo Grabia: "These hooligans have worked for every single political party, they use violence in and around the stadium but they also use violence as the pawns of union leaders and politicians."
Take the case of one of Argentina's oldest clubs, Quilmes. Its current president is national senator Aníbal Fernández, who until December last year served as the country's second-highest ranking official, Chief of Cabinet. Fernández's links with barras are well known. Last year a senior Quilmes barra confirmed to me that his gang had a "working relationship" with the then cabinet chief. Taking me on a tour of the neighbourhood, the clubhouse and stadium, he pointed out the building where Fernández lived and showed The Global Mail some of the perks afforded the barra by the club, such as free tickets, merchandising material, and flags and drums "for the fiesta" at the stadium. Later, we entered the stadium with a nod and a wink, all the tickets having long since been sold. He didn't specify what type of work the barra did for the senator.
Fernández is also regarded by many as the force behind Hinchas Unidas Argentinas (HUA — United Argentine Supporters), the nongovernmental organisation set up by his friend and political ally Marcelo Mallo. According to Grabia and other commentators, HUA was a cynical ploy through which the government traded 250-plus all-inclusive tickets to the 2010 South Africa World Cup in return for barras bravas' political support. Fernández denies any government involvement in sending hooligans to South Africa, but HUA banners featuring pro-government messages were common in Argentine stadiums in the lead-up to the event.
As with most barras, Quilmes's has two factions: the "official" El Monte, and Los Alamos, from whom they wrested control in late 2010. Recently the two have been locked in a bitter power struggle that saw El Monte leader Ramiro Bustamente's house showered with gunfire. As tensions soared in the wake of the attack, a spokesman for the El Monte faction took the extraordinary step of calling a press conference — in the Quilmes clubhouse no less — during which he accused Fernández's successor as Chief of Cabinet, Juan Manuel Abal Medina, of being behind the attack.
And Quilmes is by no means the only club whose barra brava has high-level political connections. Its counterparts at Independiente, one of the giants of Argentine football, have long worked with the country's most powerful union leader, Hugo Moyano, a controversial figure capable of stopping the nation by calling a general strike. The Independiente barra is a conspicuous presence at Moyano's large-scale demonstrations, offering its voice — and muscle — to proceedings.
Shock to the System
It is at Independiente, however, where a radical change is underway. Six months ago, a new president was elected: engineering consultant and lifelong Rojo fan (Independiente's team are nicknamed the Diablos Rojos, or Red Devils) Javier Cantero took over from Moyano's ally Julio Comparada. Having campaigned on the promise of a new era in which the club would not be held to ransom by the barra brava, he used the political capital from his election to follow through on that pledge. Twenty-seven of the gang's top leaders, including its notorious ring-leader Pablo "Bebote" Álvarez, are now banned from Independiente's stadium and from all of the club's premises. And in protest against the club administration, the barras also recently handed over the club's giant flags.
Speaking with The Global Mail in a meeting room at the club's headquarters in Avellaneda in Buenos Aires province, Cantero is under no illusions about the gravity of what he's doing [see accompanying video].
"There are two different ways to deal with this, like with the economy — shock or gradual," he says. "We decided to go with shock. We thought it was better to face the problem all at once; it was them or us.
"Many barra bravas work during the week for politicians as bodyguards or drivers, so they have political contact at a very high level. The main weapon that a barra has today is not a knife or a revolver, it is a contact book.
"So it is complicated to resolve this because the people that should be removing them from the stadiums are their bosses during the week, and they protect them."
In terms of membership, Independiente is the second biggest club in Argentina behind River Plate, and Cantero says "99 per cent" of the 73,000 members along with an "absolute majority" of the club's 4 million supporters support him.
"In this sense, these 200 to 300 people are insignificant," he says. "Fans from other clubs stop me in the street as well and say I should continue and not give up."
Early on in his mandate, Cantero learned what he describes as an important lesson in dealing with the barra brava.
"They came and asked me for money for a flag and I said I wouldn't give them money. But when they specified 'this many metres of red and white fabric,' I sent an invoice off to the shop with the name of the club Independiente.
"I bought it for the folklore of football, for the party [but] the next day in Olé, the most-read sports newspaper, there was a copy of the invoice and the barra brava said, 'Look, Cantero says he doesn't agree with the barra brava but he buys us a flag — he spends the club's money on a flag.'
"For me this was very significant. I understood that they didn't want to cheer for the team, to throw streamers and wave the flags — they wanted to expose me as a liar in front of everyone. From that moment on I never gave them anything else."
With the battle lines drawn, the barra resorted to intimidation. Bebote and his cohorts would wait for the president as he looked for his car or confront him outside the Avellaneda headquarters. One such incident was caught on national television.
Another time, the 27 banned hooligans forced their way into the building, took Cantero captive and locked themselves in this very meeting room.
"I had to sit here alone with all 27 of them for 35 to 40 minutes until the police arrived," he recalls. "It doesn't bother me, they can't do anything to me, and if they ever did, everyone would know who it was."
Although banned from its home stadium, the Independiente barra is still a presence in other teams' stadiums, mainly because of another great failing in Argentine football — the lack of unified security and other procedures across different jurisdictions. While games at Independiente's stadium are managed according to Buenos Aires province regulations, games in the city of Buenos Aires and other provinces are subject to different rules.
"Independiente's stadium is 20 blocks from Boca Juniors' stadium. The same issues are at play but there are two different sets of regulations," laments Cantero.
This is just one of the many issues that the nongovernmental organisation Salvemos Al Fútbol (SAF, or Let's Save Football) says has been met with official intransigence. "How can we help Cantero if there is no uniformity in the regulations?" asks SAF's founder, Monica Nizzardo.
One Woman's Brave Crusade
If Cantero is the highest profile voice denouncing violence in football, it's Nizzardo who screams the loudest. "She's braver than I am," the Independiente boss says, with clear admiration. In this most machista of worlds, Nizzardo travels to stadiums around the country, armed only with her video camera, documenting football violence. SAF compiles her images, along with police and television footage [see accompanying video], painting a damning picture of the reality in and beyond Argentina's football stadiums.
Nizzardo's crusade began nearly six years ago.
"I was working in the press department at Atlanta [a third division club] when a barra from our own club stormed into the office and started smashing things with a hammer," she says.
"I was frightened and appalled and decided to report it to the police but I had to go alone because my colleague said, 'I can't take you because they know my car.'"
Despite receiving death threats, Nizzardo refused to withdraw her complaint and the matter was heard in September 2006. The barra — a repeat offender on parole — was acquitted thanks to the doubt caused by the other witnesses' suddenly shady recollections of the incident. Embittered but emboldened, Nizzardo decided to up the stakes: shortly after, in February 2007, SAF was born. Since then, the foundation has initiated more than 100 court proceedings against barras, clubs, police, government and football officials for direct involvement, collusion and negligence in relation to football violence.
"Only about 10 per cent of [the cases] are still going, the rest are closed," she says. "The barras who are in prison are there for other crimes, like narcotrafficking."
Today, I'm with Nizzardo and the visiting Welshman Steven Powell, policy director of the UK's Football Supporters' Federation. We've just watched Nizzardo's beloved Atlanta lose the final game of the season and slip down to the third tier of Argentine football, and we're in the club's front office, right where the hammer-wielding barra inadvertently set Nizzardo in motion.
Powell says: "I've been to football matches all around the world and nothing matches the atmosphere at Argentine games. It's going to be a real challenge to remove the dark side without losing the atmosphere."
One block from the ground a solitary, drunken, barra spies Nizzardo and launches into tirade of verbal abuse before hurling a full (plastic) Coke bottle towards us. "Don't respond," Nizzardo warns, "that was for me."
Reflecting on the incident a few days later outside the Buenos Aires city legislature, where she's been invited to address a round-table discussion on football violence, she shrugs it off as a "very, very minor" incident.
"What it does show," she says, "is the limits of the security operation.
"We were one block from the stadium and the operation doesn't go beyond that. Everything that happens beyond that point is considered [by the police] to be outside of the operation and therefore ordinary violence instead of football-related violence."
The two previous times I'd been to Atlanta games with Nizzardo, we stood behind the goal in the home "popular" section, a matter of metres from the local barra. Unfazed, she was confident her presence alone would not be considered provocative, but warned that I keep my camera away from her.
"The reality now," she tells me, "is that they no longer fight for [the club's] colours, they fight for money.
"Most of the fights are internal, that's why we need to take the business away from them. For example, all of the tickets should be printed in one central place so the clubs aren't in a position to hand out tickets and so the stadiums aren't dangerously overcrowded because of the re-sale racket."
The highest profile "intra-barra" case of recent years involved River Plate's barra, Los Borrachos del Tablón ("The Drunks in the Stand"). A 2007 dispute between rival factions over the proceeds from the sale of star forward Gonzalo Higuain to Real Madrid resulted in the murder of high-ranking barra Gonzalo Acro. Five men, including the Los Borrachos del Tablón leaders Alan and William Schlenker, were sentenced to life in prison over the incident.
Another invitee at the round-table discussion in the city legislature is Horacio Cejas, whose brother Marcelo — "an ordinary fan, nothing to do with the barras" — was killed after being hit by a large stone in the violent aftermath of an infamous 2007 play-off match between Nueva Chicago and Tigre. The SAF video archive includes disturbing footage of Tigre fan Marcelo's dying moments; it was impossible to get him treatment because rioting fans wouldn't let emergency services pass [see accompanying video]. Five years on, despite the existence of such video evidence, Horacio and the Cejas family are still waiting for justice.
"The case has never been investigated because there is no political will to do so," Horacio says.
SAF Secretary Mariano Bergés, a former national judge, bemoans that cases like Marcelo Cejas's fall under the judicial radar, but he is further disheartened by the fact that when such cases are investigated, not even overwhelming evidence guarantees a conviction.
"If we have clear images of a certain situation, you wouldn't think there would be any problems with the case," he says, "[but] in the background there are bureaucrats who complicate things.
"Judges don't do what the law requires, but rather what they think they should do."
Referring to the feud at Independiente, Bergés recently put the following question in a media interview: "If I go to Independiente, break a door to enter and act violently, I'll go to prison. Why not them?"
Bergés says the two institutions best placed to make a difference — the national government and the Argentine Football Association (AFA) — have consistently dragged their feet. AFA, he says, has done "almost nothing" to prevent violence in and around the game, and when such episodes do occur, it takes a "the show must go on" attitude instead of pursuing justice. Nor has AFA's controversial president Julio Grondona offered anything more than lip service in support of Cantero's stand against violence and corruption at Independiente.
"No matter how complex this is, solving the huge problem in football would not be too hard," Bergés says. "The crux of the issue is that those involved do not have the guts to end it.
"There is an evil system. We have enough laws and rules, but even the police, who are in charge of security during sports events in stadiums, have been proven to have committed crimes."
Julio Grondona took over the AFA reins in 1979 during Argentina's most brutal military dictatorship and has now presided over Argentine football for 33 years. He is also the serving senior vice-president of world football's governing body, FIFA. One hundred and sixty-nine of Argentina's 269 football-related deaths have happened on his watch. Despite this, in a Q&A on the FIFA website, when asked about his most disappointing football-related moment, he professed, "I haven't had any."
Grondona, 80, rarely speaks to the media and declined to speak with The Global Mail, but an AFA email response to our questions categorically denied the existence of collusion between barras bravas and club officials. The email went on to say that while AFA had fought against violence in football since the 1980s, it had ceased to be a problem specific to football stadiums and had instead become "a true social problem".
What of specific anti-violence policies?
"AFA doesn't have any policies, it complies with what is imposed by the State."
But guess what? There are no specific State policies to prevent football violence either.
This, according to sociologist and football writer Sergio Levinsky, coupled with the ever-growing list of football-related casualties, means the State has gone "from absent to complicit".
"The government's inaction amounts to permitting these deaths," he says. "And AFA is like a foreign embassy, the rules that apply to the rest of the country don't seem to apply there."
It's a bleak picture — a culture of football violence and no prevention policies, all met with either indifference or complicity.
What chance do the likes of Nizzardo and Cantero really have?
"There are bigger changes that have happened," Cantero says, "I'm 54, and 20 years ago I could never have imagined that two people of the same sex could marry and adopt children in this country, but today it is something normal.
"If such big things can change, how can we not change this? We're talking about acts of violence and there is a criminal code to punish them. We're just lacking political decisions, conviction."