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The deadliest game

Hooliganism threatens the fabric of Argentine soccer

Posted: Wednesday September 5, 2007 2:54PM; Updated: Thursday September 6, 2007 12:38PM
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Brawling gangs aren't new in Argentina, but how high up the food chain their influence goes is staggering -- and worsening quickly.
Brawling gangs aren't new in Argentina, but how high up the food chain their influence goes is staggering -- and worsening quickly.
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Hooligans and soccer have always gone together like fish and chips, but in Argentina, they've never had as much influence on the sport as they do now. The effects of hooliganism are getting way out of hand, to the point that the fútbol has taken a back seat to violence and corruption.

Argentina has arguably the most passionate fans in the world. Its league is by far the most popular in Latin America. But this isn't only because of the quality of its soccer -- it's also because of the fierce rivalries between its teams and Argentines' unmatched obsession with the sport.

I've been to several top matches in Argentina over the last few years, including the last two superclásicos between archrivals Boca Juniors and River Plate, and almost every time I've witnessed some level of violence.

There's no question the reason why violence has become an integral part of the game in Argentina is because the passionate supporters often get carried away with the loyalty they have for their teams.

In recent years, this obsession has manifested itself into massive-scale crowd violence during and after games, and has often ended in deaths. For the average fan, attending matches isn't safe anymore. But the most troubling part is that the soccer authorities -- and even the Argentine government -- have been unable to find a solution.

Powerhouse club River Plate has been at the center of the problem this year. Last month, Gonzalo Acro -- a former member of the club's barra brava, or violent gang -- was gunned down, not by an opposing fan, but allegedly by a member of Los Borrachos del Tablón, the hooligan group to which he belonged.

In Argentina, not only do fans of opposing teams clash, but so do fans of the same team, as the main barra bravas have different factions that are constantly fighting for power.

These gangs are professional organizations that deal with large amounts of money, and normally consist of between 100 to 300 members. One of the biggest groups, Boca Juniors' La Doce ("The Twelfth Man") -- whose leader, Rafael Di Zeo, was imprisoned in March -- is said to consist of around 2,000 members.

As Argentina's main national newspaper, Clarín, recently declared, "Not only do club directors and players fund the barra bravas, but so do celebrities and politicians." (Many clubs deny any association with the gangs.)

Most barra bravas have similar roles. On Sundays, they attend their club's matches and set the scene in the terraces, chanting for their team while creating an intimidating atmosphere for the opposition in the middle of the stands behind the goals.

But their roles change during the week. Some members of barra bravas are also well-paid employees of their club. Acro, for instance, received a hefty salary from River Plate for cleaning and doing maintenance on the club's pools, a fact River president José María Aguilar admitted after Acro's death.

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