Last weekend Córdoba’s big two clubs – Belgrano and Talleres – clashed in what was the first league meeting between the two for 15 years. The game ended 1-1 but what should have been a celebration of football in the city turned to tragedy as one young fan lost his life.
In 2013 the Argentine Football Association (AFA), with government support, banned away fans from attending games. This was in response to a spate of football-related violence in, and around, stadia up and down the country. The final straw was a game between Estudiantes and Lanús in which a visiting fan was killed by a rubber bullet after clashing with police. The match was abandoned at half-time due to the chaos occurring outside. Lanús condemned the brutality of the police, and the officers in question were later investigated. Sadly, this was far from an isolated incident. Between 2000 and 2013 more than 70 fans lost their lives at Argentine football matches. Campaigners say 40 people have befallen the same fate since 2013, bringing into question just how successful the ban has been in curbing violence at football grounds.
The ban on away fans makes it even more surprising that there was trouble in Córdoba over the Easter weekend. How, you may ask, can there be trouble at a ground if no away fans are present? During the match the victim, 22-year-old Emanuel Balbo, allegedly spotted and confronted the person implicated in the killing of his brother in 2012. An altercation ensued and the accused shouted that Balbo was a Talleres fan. Balbo was then set upon and thrown to the next tier, falling more than five metres and landing on concrete steps. He was taken to hospital with severe head injuries but sadly died two days later. Disgustingly, his shoes were allegedly stolen whilst he lay lifeless on the floor, and one eye-witness claims it took police more than 15 minutes to attend to the incident. The alleged perpetrator of the act has since handed himself in to police.
The fact that such a violent incident can occur within a stadium containing one set of fans shows that banning away fans, whilst perhaps not pointless, is not the real issue here. The government is well aware that, along with the Falkland’s/Malvinas theme, football plays a huge role in the national psyche. Many commented at the time that the ban on away fans was indeed a smokescreen, ignoring the real issue at hand, which is the barra brava and a societal, deep-seated and national propensity for violence. The political structure has been democratic since 1983 but before that there was a cycle of bloody military dictatorships for the majority of the twentieth century. Whilst it is one of the lowest in Latin America, the murder rate in Argentina is five times higher than it is in England. Football fans are often no angels, but it’s clear this is a wider societal issue.
The barra can be likened to English hooligans of the 70’s and 80’s, or Italian ultras. However, they are often much more organised, and control many aspects of the club they purport to support. This includes drug distribution within the stadium, counterfeit tickets, match day parking, and much more. The violent and influential groups often have allies within the club hierarchy, making it almost impossible to eradicate them. One hand washes the other and club officials often use the barra for political support when it comes to elections.
Many of the violent, and indeed deadly, incidents that have occurred over recent years have been internal beefs between rival barra within one club, fighting over the riches on offer. The incident at the Estadio Kempes, whilst not necessarily related to problems within an organised barra, was a personal issue and did not involve away fans whatsoever. Both types of instances are impossible to solve by banning away fans and it shows a deeper, societal issue is at hand.
The majority of my experiences in Argentine football stadia have come in the more placid plateas, which run along the sides of the pitches. More-often-than-not these areas are seated, contain families, and have slightly more expensive ticket prices. The sections behind the goals, known as the populares, are predominately standing only and filled with young males. I went to a Racing-River Plate match in 2013 and stood in the popular at Racing’s El Cilindro. It was a mad, exhilarating experience but what struck me was how lawless it was in that stand. From what I recall there was no police presence, and the smell of marijuana filled the air. Whenever an opposing player came close to the stand he was pelted with lighters and coins it was almost like it was normal. I’m the last person to want a sanitised version of football, and love Argentine football for the fact that it is so wild and unpolished compared to the English Premier League. However, I’m not sure what kind of message it sends out if the authorities are tolerant of such behaviour to the extent that they seemingly are. Lawlessness in the stands are exactly the conditions that allow young men such as Emanuel Balbo to lose his life at a football match.
Talleres hosted Independiente on Wednesday night at the Estadio Kempes, the scene of Saturday’s tragic death. In a touching gesture of solidarity the Belgrano squad joined them in the centre-circle pre-match. The hashtag #NoSomosEnemigos (We are not enemies) was displayed on a banner, and the captains of Talleres, Independiente, and Belgrano all made passionate pleas to the crowd, denouncing violence.
Mauricio Pellegrino, manager of Estudiantes when the away fan ban was introduced in 2013, said that the violence is a “social problem” and that “football reflects the violence in society”. Football is often used as a scapegoat for societal problems but until society is fixed, how can football expect to be any different? The majority of fans go to the match to escape the mundane nature of modern life, so let’s hope this weekend we can get back to talking about what the majority go to the stadium for, the football.