Editor’s note: Sam Kelly, author of the excellent English-language Argentine football site Hasta El Gol Siempre, will be writing periodically on Argentina for pitchinvasion.net. Here he addresses the state of Argentinian football as the season ends with the death of another fan.
It was, perhaps, an inevitable end to the season in Argentina. The Apertura – that is, the championship held during the opening half of the season – had been blighted by violence in the stands and ocassionally the streets around the stadia. Something, evidently, had to be done.
Hope that the Clausura (season-closing) championship would be ‘cleaner’ of such problems went out the window on the first day, when two factions of River Plate’s main barra brava (hooligan gang), Los Borrachos del Tablón, fought a battle for supremacy at one of the club’s social venues, hours before the first match of the season at home to Lanús. Yes, you read that correctly: in Argentina hooligans from the same team fight each other.
River were banned from playing in their stadium, El Monumental, for five matches. They would later receive another such ban, and ended up playing more home matches in Vélez Sarsfield’s ground than in their own during the Clausura. Three weeks after these first incidents, they travelled to Rosario to play Newell’s Old Boys. With River winning and the match drawing to a close, Newell’s fans began throwing rocks in the direction of the away support, and the referee ended proceedings early. For this, Newell’s were handed a punishment unprecedented in Argentine footballing history – they were deducted three points! Everyone gasped. The authorities meant business.
Or rather, they wanted to look like they did. There are reasons this is a continuing problem in Argentina, and they’re a little ironic in light of what many northern European (particularly British) fans feel about the increasing distance between fan and club. Because in Argentina many would say some fans have too much of a say.
The situation is this: The Argentine FA hardly disciplines the top clubs because they know which side their bread is buttered. Between them, River and Boca Juniors claim two thirds of the fans in the entire country. The other three of the ‘Big Five’ – Independiente, Racing and newly crowned champions San Lorenzo – share a sizeable chunk of the remaining third. The AFA have often told referees to go easy on these teams, along with Arsenal de Sarandí, whose founding president, back in 1957, was one Julio Grondona – the current head of the AFA. These clubs, then, have a massive amount of control over the running of the game, and their fans – and most particularly the barras bravas – have a big say in the running of the clubs.
Go to La Bombonera, Boca’s stadium, and you’ll see a lot of stars laid into the pavement outside the museum entrance with players’ footprints and names, ‘walk of fame’ style. One reads simply ‘La Doce’. This is the star reserved – by club officials – for Boca’s barra. A few months ago, Rafael Di Zeo, head of La Doce, was sentenced to four-and-a-half years in jail for his part in a mass brawl between fans of Boca and Chacarita Juniors in 1999. One Chacarita fan was killed, and it was his death which Di Zeo and five others were sent down for – eight years later. Now, listen to this: some of Boca’s senior players visited these guys in jail, taking them gifts including signed shirts, shortly after their incarcerations. Di Zeo has been called one of the most powerful men in Argentine football. I’ll repeat for those who missed it the first time: he’s the head of a hooligan gang.
It must be said that the violence of the Clausura hasn’t been on the same level that so severely marred the Apertura. Yet there’s still a lot to do. Still clubs – with the exception of Racing, who since bankruptcy in 2001 have been owned by a private company and thus whose fans are more cut off from the running of the club – are reluctant to ban the barras from their stadia, being as they are the main cheerleaders, most reliable form of away support (free tickets and even coaches are often arranged – and the barras never pay to enter home matches) and, quite frankly, not a gang of people you’d want to mess with in any case. But by and large, during the Clausura, with lamentable exceptions, they got by.
The third from last round of the season saw a tragedy which was entirely avoidable, as a young River fan climbed to a better vantage point in Vélez’s stadium during his side’s match against Godoy Cruz. He fell from the back of the stand to the car park, and was killed. It wasn’t an act of violence, of course – but had the security been tighter, he wouldn’t have been doing it (and it’s not as if he’s the only one who’s ever tried it in an Argentine stadium).
Then came Monday night’s relegation playoff second leg.
Nueva Chicago fans aren’t the worst in Argentina – that title probably goes to Chacarita – but they’re pretty bad (I witnessed them first hand on my first visit to an Argentine stadium, which incidentally was also Javier Mascherano’s professional debut for River). On Monday night, their side played at home against second division side Tigre. The situation: the second leg of a playoff. Tigre had won the first leg 1-0 and Chicago needed an aggregate draw – or victory, of course – to defend their place in the First Division.
They lost. Tigre were 2-1 up on the night when, in the 90th minute, they were awarded a penalty and the Chicago fans swamped the pitch, tearing players’ shirts off and attacking whatever they could. A stone was thrown into the away section. A 41-year-old man was hit on the head by it, and later pronounced dead on arrival at hospital. The riots continued for hours, and there were a total of 14 injuries, not counting that death. Seventy-eight arrests were made, which I suppose is encouraging. It’s certainly more than I’d have expected.
In the aftermath, CoProSeDe, the awkwardly-acronymed sporting security authority in the Province of Buenos Aires, has announced that the remaining promotion / relegation playoffs under its jurisdiction – which covers most of the urban area of Greater Buenos Aires as well as the rest of the province – will be played behind closed doors. They’ve then got the winter break to take a long hard look at things before the Apertura begins in August. It looked like they were doing a better (still hardly brilliant, mind) job in the Clausura. But two deaths are two too many.
Sam Kelly runs the English-language Argentine football site Hasta El Gol Siempre and will be writing periodically on Argentina for pitchinvasion.net