BUENOS AIRES - The organization of the 1934 World Cup in Italy by Mussolini and the 1936 Olympics in Germany by Hitler helped those governments legitimize their regimes around the globe.
Sport in general – and soccer in particular – is a phenomenon that integrates society, promotes values and arouses a large interest amongst very different strata of society, and governments during the 20th century knew how to make the most of the political use of sports and sporting events.
Argentina organized the FIFA World Cup in 1978, an event with which the military government sought to win over international public opinion and convince observers that they were not violating human rights, as was alleged at the time. The Argentine people celebrated the event – even though it cost over $500 million – and their dubious 6-0 win over Peru in the second round.
It's particularly interesting to note that the 1978 World Cup marks the beginning of the "vicious triangle" in Argentina, linking politics, soccer club management and violent supporters.
In order to “take care” of match day activities, the military dictatorship decided to "outsource" management of the event to a group of violent supporters of the clubs where the matches were being played. At the time, the expression "barra bravas," used to describe the hooligan fan groups, hadn’t yet been coined. This led to the privatization of violence by these supporters, who engaged in behavior similar to that of the enforcers of the dictatorship.
Over time, the relationship between the government and the barra bravas inevitably affected the operation of clubs and their management, who were now facing an unmanageable monster that had to be tamed. This is what prompted politicians, club managements and barra bravas to start working together. Today, this relationship is beneficial for all parties, even if some participants believe it must end.
Business and politics
With merchandising, food sales, stadium parking, and transport to away games, the clubs' barra bravas rake in millions. In the most important clubs in Argentina, like Boca Juniors and River Plate, it is estimated that the car parks generate up to 500,000 pesos ($100,000) each year. As we know, the barra brava business has flourished thanks to its relationship with power – a relationship that doesn't recognize political "colors.’ Two recent high profile cases are the perfect example of this:
Luis Barrionuevo, a well known trade unionist and Peronist politician, who, after losing in the elections for Governor of the Catamarca province in 2003, ordered a massive burning of ballot boxes, which had been in the charge of the barra bravas of the Chacarita Juniors club, of which he had been President.
And the person accused of being responsible for the 2012 death of Mariano Ferreyra – a student activist who was shot in the head during a labor dispute – turned out to be a member of the barra bravas of the Defensa y Justicia club.
There are numerous cases like this. The barra bravas have strong ties to the government, which doesn't seem to care one bit about the five people who died in 2012 in barra bravas-related incidents, or the more than 40 deaths in the last ten years.
The club managers are trapped in a situation that both benefits them and harms them. On the one hand, it provides them with opportunities to rise to power – the former President of Boca Juniors, Maurizio Macri, is now the mayor of Buenos Aires. On the other hand, they are forced to keep these groups around to maintain order on their clubs. You would think that club managers would want to end this situation, but they haven't joined forces in that direction. It’s no coincidence that the president of the Argentine Football Association (and vice-president of FIFA), Julio Grondona, has spent 33 years in office elected by the leaders of the member clubs.
Recently, the President of the Club Atletico Independiente began a crusade to eradicate the violence and barra bravas in his club. However, he was met with lukewarm support from his peers and up until now, has been a lone voice without any institutional support. Furthermore, he was threatened by the leader of the club’s barra bravas in front of live television cameras. Yes, it went unpunished.
The first question to ask concerns the past – what measures had been put in place to eradicate this "phenomenon"? Two in particular stand out: the right of entry, since 2000, with which the clubs have access to a list of people who are banned from attending matches. This measure was implemented with the idea that the problem of violence in stadiums stemmed from the rivalry between the barra bravas of different clubs, something that happens often but is not the main root of the problem. This right of entry leaves a very small margin of action for the clubs where there is a strong link between barra bravas and management. In summary, it’s a cosmetic measure.
The second question concerns the future – how do we break this system? Truthfully, the outlook is complex and disheartening. The blame is shared and there isn't enough interest, at least on the government level, to eradicate the barra bravas. It requires a strong political will to do it, one that seems very far off.
The business of violence is a market that benefits a select few and harms everyone else. Those on the outside are left to pay the price, losing a little bit more of their beloved sport each day.
This article was originally published in Asuntos Del Sur, a think tank on Latin American issues.