The Drunks of the Terrace

River Plate troubleIt seems to be asking too much to hope that a round of matches in this year’s Torneo Clausura will pass without incident in Argentina. In the two weeks since I last updated the situation on Pitch Invasion, there have been two matches in the first division affected by crowd unrest.

During the seventh round of matches (a week and a half ago), Racing were 2-1 down to Estudiantes the break. It was around the hour mark that things really started falling apart for the hosts. Two men were sent off in quick succession, both for second bookable offences and one somewhat harshly, before a ball over the top was knocked down by teenage sensation Maxi Moralez, back on loan after an unhappy first six months at FC Moscow. He put Racing level with thirteen minutes left. Or so it seemed.The officials, though, had seen a handball in Moralez’s control – again somewhat debatably. Not only was the goal disallowed, but Moralez’s booking was his second, leaving his team with only eight men and the fans behind the goal absolutely seething.

Referee Federico Beligoy had little choice, given the increasingly unstable atmosphere inside the stadium, but to call the match off after five minutes of waiting for the home fans to calm down. The AFA have dragged their feet no end about what will happen to the rest of the match and the points, but common practice in Argentina when the losing side’s fans cause the trouble is to simply let the score stand, which was being reported on Tuesday by some as official, despite no announcement either way from the AFA ten days on.

Tragedy and River Plate

Bad though the scenes in Racing’s stadium, El Cilindro, were though, they weren’t on the same scale as the events of this Sunday just gone, when two factions of River Plate’s unstable barra brava clashed in Vélez Sársfield’s stadium, leaving one man in a medically-induced coma and the threat of serious sanctions hanging over the club.

The situation within Los Borrachos del Tablón (‘The Drunks of the Terrace’) has been brewing for a few years and is, in short, a dispute over the running of the gang and therefore the profits of its highly lucrative business dealings, ticketing racket and perhaps ‘protection’ money from club officials. Last August, Gonzalo Acro, the right-hand man of Adrián Rousseau, one of the warring capos, was shot dead and one-off scraps have occurred since.

On Sunday, River were using Vélez’s ground as their home stadium for the visit of Arsenal de Sarandí having allowed their own ground, the Monumental, to be used for an Ozzy Osbourne-led rock festival. Los Borrachos had set this date to settle a few scores in order that any subsequent sanctions not result in the closure of the Monumental, after two such stadium bans were handed out to the club during the Apertura in the first half of this season. Furthermore, the planned scrap was such an open appointment for many of them that more than one journalist went on record as saying it would take place unless the police intervened swiftly and sensibly.

But this is Argentina, and the police are rarely swift and never sensible, least of all where footballing matters are under discussion. Comments about the exact police presence range from the seven hundred reported in the press to a River vice-president’s subsequent declaration that the club had paid for ‘eight hundred-odd’ uniformed officers for security, but two things are for sure: there were a lot of them, and somehow none to be seen in the right location when the fighting broke out in the popular, the name given in Argentina to the stand behind the goal at the home end – where the barras always congregate. In a battle that saw numerous barras tumbling down the steep terrace and many more innocent fans running for their lives and having to shield their children from the fight, there were seven injuries, one of which may yet prove critical.

The TV pictures showed the fight and (1:25 into the video) one man slipping in and out of consciousness. That man, 39-year-old Juan José Paz, whose picture had been shown across Argentina with a face entirely covered in blood, was eventually transferred to a nearby hospital, where he was put into a medically-induced coma with a fracture to the back of his skull – on Tuesday he was still in a serious condition but with ‘some signs of development’, according to the public statement from the hospital. The police claimed that Paz was injured before entering the stand when he suffered an epileptic fit and banged his head on the floor after falling. Some TV pictures reportedly showed him very definitely already inside the stadium being viciously hit on the back of a head by a barra brava. Police brutality was also mentioned – an inevitable result of suspicion towards police authority across Latin America, but in this case at least one that can probably be dismissed.

The police version seems a very peculiar one, partly because the attack by another ticket-holder whom the police had let into the ground seems to have pretty solid foundations, and partly because the authorities are surely opening themselves up to another accusation just by suggesting what they have done; if Paz had an epileptic fit and received a violent blow on the head after falling backwards onto a concrete floor, why on earth was he allowed to continue into the stadium to watch the match?

River’s directors have publicly spoken out in newspapers and on the radio to distance themselves from the brawl, but the fact that they even have to speaks volumes for the barras’ influence in Argentina. The current board have been accused more than once of turning a blind eye to the barra’s actions, and it was no real surprise to anyone when club president José María Aguilar indulged in a bit of doublethink on Tuesday, telling the press, ‘In the past I’ve said I knew the barras at River; from the stands, the club, our social venues… but I don’t know [the ones whose pictures appeared in Monday's papers].’ The attitude of many fans towards Aguilar’s comments will be: well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?

The blame should clearly be shared. River’s board, having paid for the security operation, could have given the police a rather better idea of who to deny access to, given that the fight was public knowledge among even many non-barras before it took place. The police for their part could have had a presence in the stand behind the goal – this would have been breaking with normal practice, which dictates that they’re often too afraid (or, perhaps, corrupt) to properly police the popular, but is still surely a sensible idea for all matches. The barras, of course, could have refrained from smuggling knives, chains and other weapons into the stand and attacking one another – and seemingly some innocent fans – with them. Apparently, though, asking for even one of these things to pass is simply too optimistic.

At the end of the video linked to above, there’s a short piece of footage which is revealing of the wider consensus in the country. As the fight continued in full view of the fans in the rest of the stadium, a chant rose up normally reserved for hated rivals or particularly unlucky (or incompetent) referees: ‘¡A la puta que te parió!’ (‘[Get back] to the whore who gave birth to you!’) ‘No son de River’ (‘You’re not River fans’) was another with which the assembled crowd disowned the barra, who normally instigate the chants in a rather different way. It sounds like nothing special, but it’s the first time a barra with the influence of Los Borrachos has been the object of such vitriol from fans of their own team. The majority, as if it weren’t already clear enough, have voiced their displeasure. If only that was going to be enough to put a stop to the madness.

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