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Argentine Football Violence Exported to South Africa

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Jun 10 2010 (IPS) - No one admits to providing them with support, but hundreds of Argentine football hooligans known as “barras bravas” flew to South Africa for the World Cup and are threatening to cause disturbances if the football clubs do not get them tickets to the games.

Argentina’s barras bravas are powerful enough to pressure political leaders, the heads of football clubs and players in exchange for cheers and support during matches or political rallies.

More than 300 barras bravas are in South Africa for the opening of the World Cup Friday, although 12 were deported. In a statement, the police said “Intelligence indicated that these persons would commit acts of public disorder, engage in acts of violence and provoke conflict with certain fans of opponent teams”.

One of the deported men, who is on parole after a conviction for attempted murder, was able to leave Argentina without difficulties, apparently because the border agents had not received the notification from the judge, although other reports mention the possibility of corruption.

Many of the barras bravas who are in South Africa do not have tickets, and are threatening to cause trouble if they don’t get in to the matches. One leader of a football club told the Clarín newspaper in Argentina that they should be given tickets, in order to avoid “serious problems.”

Sergio Danishewsky, a sociologist and sports journalist, told IPS from South Africa that the phenomenon of the barras bravas “is very complex” and has gradually “taken root,” with no one daring to tackle it.

“First they grow as shock forces, they make deals with the heads of the football clubs to back or get rid of coaches or players and to provide support in election processes,” he said. “In exchange, they manage activities that bring in funds and give them economic power, such as ticket sales, parking around stadiums or plane tickets.

“After that, political links emerge, their influence grows, they gain power as pressure groups, and it becomes more and more difficult to dismantle them,” Danishewsky said.

Today, the leaders of the barras bravas have comfortable lifestyles and expensive lawyers.

The government denies that it provides them with support, while the leaders of the clubs and the national team’s technical staff, headed by legendary footballer Diego Maradona, flatly deny any links to the groups.

Sociologist Diego Murzi of the public University of Buenos Aires said organised groups of football fans have been active since the 1960s, but that back then, “it was an honour to defend the team from the rivals. Now they have become clans that jockey for power and are motivated by economic considerations.”

As football grew as a business, “the barras demanded a larger share of the pie,” he said. “The barra brava is an actor in the world of football with enormous non-institutional power, on the fringes of the system.”

What is surprising today, he said, is the number of barras bravas who managed to travel to the World Cup.

Like in the past, they are said to have links to government officials and party leaders, especially of the governing Justicialista (Peronist) Party.

“There has always been a handful of barras bravas who have made it to global football championships by pulling strings in the clubs, but this time a whole contingent flew over,” Murzi stated.

He said another novel aspect was that now they have such “obvious” ties to the state.

Murzi was referring to a “non-governmental organisation” created in November, Hinchadas Unidas Argentinas (Argentine Fans United), which promised to take 500 fans to the World Cup and turn them into “community leaders” who will help build housing for the poor and get involved in other social efforts.

The group, led by Marcelo Mallo, began unfurling banners with political messages at matches, one of which was ‘Kirchner Vuelve’ — a call for the reelection of President Cristina Fernández’s husband and predecessor, former president Nestor Kirchner (2003-2007), in the 2011 elections.

But cabinet chief Aníbal Fernández denied any links between the government and the group, and called the creation of Hinchadas Unidas Argentinas “a catastrophe”, while describing the organisation as “a monstrosity”.

He has also repeatedly denied assertions that the government has financed fans’ trips to South Africa.

Mallo, a leader of Compromiso K — a group of Kirchner’s political supporters — who has admitted that he goes way back with the cabinet chief, took more than 240 fans to South Africa, where they are staying in a school.

In South Africa, he once again stated that Hinchadas Unidas Argentinas received no government support or public funds in exchange for the political publicity in the stadiums. However, he has not explained how the group is financed.

Salvemos al Fútbol (Let’s Save Football), a non-governmental organisation that campaigns against violence in stadiums in Argentina, reports 249 violent football-related deaths since 1924, and maintains that the barras bravas enjoy the support of the police and the complicity of political and sports leaders at the highest levels.

The group has asked the justice system to investigate how fans facing charges in court or on parole were able to travel to South Africa.

It has also called for investigations into possible links between Hinchadas Unidas Argentinas and the governing faction of the Peronist Party, and of the source of the funds for the group’s trip to the World Cup, which Salvemos al Fútbol estimates at 2.7 million dollars.

The non-governmental organisation asserts that Julio Grondona, the president of the Argentine Football Association and first vice president of the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA), is one of the powerful figures who have supported the barras bravas for decades.

Grondona staunchly denied the allegation, pointing instead earlier this month to Maradona and the Argentine team’s manager, Carlos Bilardo, saying their ties with the barras “emerged in 1986.”

He was alluding to arrangements made by the two for 60 fans to travel to the World Cup in Mexico, which Argentina won. Since then, the barras bravas have travelled to the championships. But this year, so many of them have gone that they have drawn attention away from the team itself.

Maradona absolutely denied any links, while Bilardo admitted that he had ties to some fans, but told them he would not be able to get them tickets to the matches.

He did so after the vice president of the Boca Juniors club and the head of the Argentine delegation, Juan Crespi, told Clarín that the barras “come every day, asking for Bilardo and saying he had promised them tickets, and Bilardo tells us we have to get them, but I don’t know how.”

Psycholologist Marcelo Roffé and journalist José Jozami launched a book this month in Buenos Aires, “Fútbol y Violencia: Miradas y propuestas” on violence in football, which reveals the complexity of the social relations in the sport.

“The ultimate aim of the book is to reduce the number of deaths within and outside of the stadiums,” Roffé told IPS.

The psychologist said the violence “isn’t going to be curbed as long as there is collusion between the barras bravas, the police, and the football club leaders.”

He also said the barras bravas are “just the tip of an iceberg” — referring to a “much more complex social” phenomenon tainted by corruption.

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