If you’ve ever been to a soccer game in Argentina you’ll have noticed that elements of the crowd can get somewhat “enthusiastic” during the match. Drums, flares, singing, wielding giant banners and flags and so on are par for the course. So who are those people? They answer is that they are the barras bravas.
In Europe, another place where enthusiastic soccer fandom is not an unknown phenomenon, the most hardcore groups of fans are called “ultras” – because they’re not just fans but ultrafans. In Argentina (and in fact the rest of Latin America too) these groups are known as barras bravas, which translates as something like “wild gangs.” Basically, each team has its ordinary fans…and then it has its barra brava.
Calling the barras bravas “organized soccer supporters groups” is one way of describing them, and the way of describing them that the Argentine Soccer Association would prefer you to use, but as we’ll see, “soccer hooligans” is a lot closer to the mark.
Here are the top teams of Argentina’s Primera División along with the barra brava for each:
* Club Atlético Independiente – Los Diablos Rojos (The Red Devils)
* Club Atlético Boca Juniors – La 12 (The 12)
* Club Atlético River Plate – Los Borrachos del Tablón (The Drunkards of the Stand)
* Club Atlético San Lorenzo de Almagro – La Gloriosa (The Glorious)
* Racing Club de Avellaneda – La Guardia Imperial (The Imperial Guard)
* Club Atlético Rosario Central – Los Guerreros (The Warriors)
* Club Atlético Newell’s Old Boys – La Hinchada Más Popular (The Most Popular Fans)
* Club Atlético Colón – Los de Siempre (The Usual)
* Club Atlético Talleres – La Fiel (The Faithful)
* Club Atlético Belgrano – Los Piratas Celestes de Alberdi (The Sky-Blue Pirates of Alberdi)
* Club Atlético Vélez Sársfield – La Pandilla (The Gang)
* Club Ferro Carril Oeste – La Banda 100% Caballito (The 100% Caballito Band)
* Club de Gimnasia y Esgrima La Plata – La 22 (The 22)
* Club Atlético Huracán – La Banda de la Quema (The Burning Band)
So if you’re a member of a barra brava, what does seeing your team play entail? Well, not two hours of sipping mate and applauding quietly at appropriate junctures, that’s for sure. Try: standing up for the entire game in a special section of the stadium; singing at the top of your lungs; waving flags; pounding drums; lighting the flares that you smuggled in, and starting fights wherever possible with supporters of the opposing team.
All innocent fun, right? Well, if all the barras bravas did was make a lot of noise at soccer matches and start the odd fight then that wouldn’t be so bad. And in fact, for most of their members, that’s probably all membership entails. But it seems that the leaders of the barras bravas (many of whom have criminal records) are into a whole lot more than that.
The shadiness of the barra brava leadership is borne out by the fact that there have been three barra brava-related killings in the Argentine city of Rosario this year inside a month of each other. On 19 March 2010, the former head of the barra brava for the Newell’s Old Boys club was shot and killed while standing in the doorway of a bar. His friends said that just prior to his death he had commented that he thought he was being trailed by the police. A few days before that, a former leader of the barra brava of Rosario Central had been killed outside his home. And a member of the barra brava of the second division club Defensa y Justicia, was also stabbed to death around the same time. These three murders took football-related killings in Argentina since 1924 to a total of 249.
So why are barra brava members getting killed? No-one knows, but given some of the stuff that the leaders of the barras bravas’ are apparently into, it seems like there would be plenty of reasons.
Here are some of the activities that barra brava leaders have been known to be involved in:
* Drug dealing;
* Fighting turf wars for control of the drugs trade;
* Hawking (at inflated prices) bunches of tickets given to them “under the table” by their clubs;
* Side businesses such as selling player t-shirts or photos;
* Organizing parking outside the stadium;
* Organizing security for music gigs played at the stadium;
* Charging foreign tourists to watch games in the stands next to the team’s fans;
* Organizing dinners with players in exchange for tickets to matches, and
* Receiving money from politicians for holding up certain banners during games.
On top of all of this there’s the corruption. Allegedly, certain officials within the clubs rely on the support of their barra brava to succeed in internal elections. Barra brava leaders are apparently also enlisted to do dirty work like harassing unwanted coaches or players until they quit the team, and threatening players with violence unless they perform better in matches. In return for their services, the leaders of the barras bravas’ get kickbacks from their clubs that include free tickets to games, money and jobs.
Some people think that the barras bravas are such a problem that they’ve actually set up groups to combat them. One is Salvemos al Fútbol (Let’s Save Football), which is a non-governmental organization that is trying to eradicate violence and corruption in Argentina soccer. However, this is Argentina, and the complicity of the clubs coupled with unreliable law enforcement makes the problem of the barras bravas especially difficult to solve.
“There is no strong political determination to put an end to the violence and corruption in football,” Mónica Nizzardo, president of Salvemos al Fútbol, is quoted as saying.
Unfortunately, the support of the security forces and political and sports leaders very probably means that the violence, crime and corruption that the barras bravas are involved in are not going to be eradicated any time soon.
So next time you go to see a soccer match in Argentina, take a look at those fanatical fans and give a thought to what kinds of nefarious activities they might be mixed up in besides just cheering on their team. Then go back to enjoying the game and stay the hell out of their way