It’s an energetic Sunday night in Buenos Aires as the highly anticipated match between the two most beloved Argentinian football clubs is underway. It’s a friendly match between Boca Juniors and River Plate and there is nothing friendly about it. These clubs make up one of the fiercest rivalries in not just football but arguably all of sports. Its name is the Superclásico and it has been a tradition for decades. During the early portion of the match this hatred had begun to materialize with vicious tackles performed on two River players. Both of the Boca culprits were sent off by the referee as a result. This was only the beginning however. Shortly after this the tipping point was met when a River player head-butted Boca’s star Carlos Tevez. Chaos ensued as a brawl broke out and by the end three more players were sent off while police swarmed the field. The match ended in a win for River Plate but this certainly was not the headline of the night. The fixture was viewed as a disgrace by both sides and it showed the dirty side of the beautiful game. However, the violence and poor behavior displayed on the field pales in comparison to the actions displayed off of it. Organized crime and corruption have negatively impacted the sport and continues to do so through money laundering, racketeering, and violence.
Argentina is currently known as a country that contains some of the most passionate football fans in the world. Football is not just a sport to them but a religion. These fans come from all walks of life and have supported their clubs for many years. Some have even taken their dedication to the next level. For every major Argentinian club there has been the creation of organized fan groups. These are made up of the rowdiest supporters who consistently make their presence known through passionate chants, banners, and slogans. These groups however are not just all made up of innocent fans. The term for these groups is barra bravas (tough-gangs) and they are mostly responsible for the corruption and violence that surrounds Argentinian football. These gangs have been around as early as the 1950’s and have grown into a dominant force. Barras, as they are known, are organized in a way that resembles the mafia only with club supporters. The barras are headed by a leader who surrounds himself with a small group that controls up to 6,000 foot soldiers who perform various tasks. These tasks include using violence on rival gangs, controlling merchandising outfits, operating food stalls around the stadium, charging for parking, and even the distribution of weapons and drugs. In return, the foot soldiers receive free tickets, beer, and drugs while the money flows to the top. The passion of Argentinian football fans has transformed into a business operation that transcends fandom.
Additionally, the corruption of the barras not only involves just fans but the clubs themselves. Various club directors and staff owe their positions to these groups and if they go against the desires of the barras they can receive threats of physical harm. According to Argentinian journalist Gustavo Grabia, the barras “also receive up to 30% of transfer fees when a player leaves and up to 20% of some players’ paychecks.” This is quite startling and provides a glimpse of how much power these groups possess. The police and politicians tend to turn a blind eye to these affairs since they are also under their influence. By showing their support and collecting votes for politicians they receive impunity in return. A member of one of the barras (wasn’t revealed due to safety reasons) explains how “Police get paid, politicians get paid, and everyone wins. When they need muscle they have it, when we want money or access to players then we get it. If the clubs don’t think a player is doing his job properly or not paying out we’ll have a word or his girlfriend or wife might be threatened with kidnap.” The level of control that the barras have is now equivalent or even above the clubs themselves.
Furthermore, the barras serve as a reflection of the hardship and struggle that have been ongoing in various sections of Argentina. Many foot soldiers come from Argentina’s slums and the barras give them a chance to escape this reality. One member who lives in Villa Fiorito, one of Argentina’s most dangerous slums, describes his experience by stating how “It was like a dream, to go to the match every week, to be someone. At the games we’re welcomed like heroes. You don’t need to go through security, you don’t need to answer any questions. In there we’re like the kings of the stadium!” It is clear that the barras have provided these fans something that they were previously devoid of. This is the reward of status. Since these men are not able to obtain it in their slums they have chosen to gain it through the world of football.
In conclusion, the state of corruption in Argentinian football seems to be never-ending as the barras continue to thrive. The money laundering, racketeering, and violence that are common with the barras have plagued the sport in the country. The fact that the players, club directors, politicians, and law enforcement are all involved in these activities has put a stain on the beautiful game. Though it might provide those in the slums a chance to escape their troubles, it should not come at the price of integrity. Hopefully the foot soldiers will soon start to realize this, but odds are as long as the conditions around them remain poor the barras will live on. Moreover, the Superclásico approaches this Sunday at the famous Bombonera, home of Boca Juniors, and excitement has already been building. When the players step onto the pitch they will be cheered on by thousands of passionate fans including La Doce. This group of Boca supporters are revered for their intense display of affection and have been known as some of the most loyal fans in the sport. Simultaneously, they are also known as “one of the most feared and infamous groups of barra brava in the country.” This duality is a representation of what Argentinian football has become.