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ARGENTINA: World Cup – Behind Bars

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Jun 2 2006 (IPS) - The Argentine team lost 7-3 to Ivory Coast and was eliminated from the 2006 world football championship. But luckily for Argentina, this is not the World Cup that kicks off this month in Germany, but a contest that has already begun in 32 prisons in the province of Buenos Aires.

The “First Inter-prison World Football Championship” got underway Tuesday in the penitentiary known as Unidad Nº 9 in La Plata, the capital of the province of Buenos Aires, the country’s most populous province.

Both Argentina and Ivory Coast were represented by inmates of two prisons in the province.

A total of 384 players went through the tough selection process, training and eliminatory matches. Each team adopted the flag of one of the 32 countries taking part in this year’s World Cup. But unlike professional football, the teams are made up of seven players, instead of 11.

The games are divided into two 25-minute halves, and the system is simple elimination – which is why Argentina is already out, after the opening match.

IPS spoke with Jorge Ochipinti, a representative of the home team, who said “We really wanted to win. But this at least gets us out of here for a while.”

Ochipinti, 38, is four years into an 18-year sentence for a theft-related crime, although he preferred not to go into details. He said, however, that he was going to appeal.

At the age of 17, he embarked on a professional career as a footballer in the Estudiantes de Buenos Aires B-league club.

But he earned very little, and when his father fell ill he was forced to find a better-paying job. “After that, the circumstances of life led me down different paths,” he added.

Now, as a prisoner in Unidad Nº 9, he is getting involved in football again.

Prisons in Argentina have come under scrutiny from human rights groups. One of the problems is the slow pace of justice, with a majority of the 25,000 prisoners in the 50 penitentiaries of the province of Buenos Aires still pending trial.

Activists point out that in the province, where the prison population has increased 70 percent in the past six years, the penitentiary system is on the verge of collapse due to severe overcrowding and high levels of violence. The number of violent deaths of prisoners and guards rose threefold between 2002 and 2005.

The appalling conditions and continuous reports of mistreatment and torture in prisons in the province were documented in a 2004 report by the Committee Against Torture, of the Provincial Commission for Memory, an independent state body.

The study, “System of Cruelty: Corruption and Torture in Prisons and Police Stations in the Province of Buenos Aires”, painted a dismal scene: cells lacking windows or other ventilation, toilets with no water, windows without glass and showers without hot water, even in the cold Argentine winter, shortages of food and medicines, and veritable torture chambers where prisoners are routinely mistreated.

Against that backdrop, football represents an escape – although only in a figurative sense. “The inmates play football here all day, every day – from Monday to Monday,” Gabriel de Murta, a physical education teacher who is the head of sports in the province’s Penitentiary Service, told IPS.

De Murta is one of the mentors of the prison championship project. “Football accounts for 80 percent of the time that prisoners dedicate to sports in prison. The remaining 20 percent is divided between other sports.”

“So we decided to capitalise on the excitement generated by the World Cup to organise our own world championship,” he said.

The logistics have not been easy. The schedule was designed so that the teams are transported the shortest possible distances, although in some cases that means a drive of up to 300 km between prisons.

“The enthusiasm has been enormous,” said de Murta. “The players have been training every day, and obtained permission to be released during the daytime to practice in local clubs. They have taken this very seriously, and have adopted the colours of the countries assigned to them, without fighting or complaining.”

The inmates’ families fill the stands at the games, and the prisoners have made flags of the countries they represent, for their fans to wave and cheer them on.

“There are some really good players, some were even professional footballers,” said de Murta. “I’ve seen them train, and it’s great to watch quality football.”

The referee at the opening match was Ángel Sánchez, who refereed at the last World Cup, held in 2002 in South Korea and Japan. Provincial authorities also took part in Tuesday’s opening, as did former first division players, who gave the first kick.

The “First Inter-prison World Football Championship” will last longer than the World Cup, which runs Jun. 9 to Jul. 9 in Germany.

The final match will be held in mid-August. “We hope Horacio Elizondo (an Argentine referee selected for the World Cup) will be back by then, and that he will honour us by refereeing our final game,” said de Murta.

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