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Hard Times And Hooliganism In Soccer-Crazy Argentina

Rowdy fans added to the annals of soccer stupidity by forcing organizers to cancel the hugely anticipated Copa Libertadores final in Buenos Aires.

River Plate fans looking at an empty pitch
River Plate fans looking at an empty pitch
Reinaldo Spitaletta


BOGOTÁ — In Argentina, people embrace soccer (and suffer because of it) as if it were a religion. Or some kind of escapist drug, perhaps. The sport one French academic and writer termed "intelligence in movement" is ubiquitous. It is fervor itself. A burning-hot fever. A passion that, in some cases, prompts people to do stupid things — or worse. Sometimes it makes fans want to simply obliterate anyone wearing a rival jersey.

The great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges himself observed that soccer is "popular because stupidity is popular." Indeed, there have been plenty of bone-headed episodes in and outside soccer stadiums. And let's not forget the 1978 World Cup, which Argentina — ruled at the time by a brutal military dictatorship — hosted, and won. That may have been the darkest moment of all in Argentine soccer history.

While the dictator Jorge Videla celebrated the victory and the crowds screamed their lungs out in El Monumental, the Buenos Aires stadium that's also home to the popular River Plate team, close by political prisoners were being tortured and "disappeared." The shouting over goals that day overwhelmed the brave protests of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo clamoring to know what had become of their children. That bloody cup was not just part of Argentina's history — or infamy — but also of the murky ties between soccer and politics. It has always been a sinister, manipulative marriage.

Soccer is "popular because stupidity is popular."

And now, decades later, we're confronted with a new, shameful episode. Editor's note: On Nov. 24, River Plate fans attacked a bus carrying players of the rival club Boca Juniors. What was supposed to be a glorious day for the country — the first time Argentina's most storied franchises met in the final of the Copa Libertadores, a tournament featuring Latin America"s top soccer clubs — ended in dismay, as organizers were forced to suspend the match. The South American Football Confederation (CONMEBOL) has now announced that the game will be moved to Madrid, Spain, and take place on Dec. 9.

The violence and subsequent suspension of a game that one local television station described, in somewhat exaggerated terms, as the "world championship," are indicative of acute social tensions in Argentina. They also demonstrate the kind of alienation that results when soccer is more business than entertainment. When it divides more than it unites. When it becomes a matter of "life and death." When it serves as a mechanism for controlling the masses.

Control is, of course relative, as Saturday's incidents showed. The city police thought — inexplicably — that it would be a good idea to let the Boca Juniors bus drive to El Monumental through streets jam packed with rival fans. More than a century's rivalry between the sides (which would be fine had it been civilized), is no trivial matter, and we can add to that the increasing number of low-lives among fans, people who aren't so much admirers of a soccer club as they are louts and criminals.

What had been billed as a "world championship" ended up being a barbaric mess.

The great Maradona, the soccer legend who remains a mythical figure in the capital, politicized the pre-match incident by blaming President Mauricio Macri. He called him "the worst president ever," and commented on how unhappy Argentines have become under Macri's neoliberal, "far-right" regime. "What's happening in my country is awful," he said. "We respect nothing. The president tricked so many people, promising to change this and now we're worse off than before ... You're afraid to go see a match. There is theft everywhere, but this is the change people voted for."

"But what does Macri care? He's always been a millionaire's son," Maradona added as a parting shot. "What does it matter to him if some five-year-old kid in Lomas Zamora a slum district has enough to eat."

All of this hand-wringing over the attack on the Boca bus is another sign of the rotten state of things in the land of tango and great writers. Living standards are in a free-fall, and every day another sector or union joins the social struggle. There have been mass protests over joblessness, and against the spending cuts, de-industrialization and other economic measures that the government, in accordance with the International Monetary Fund, has imposed.

What had been billed as a "world championship" — and may very well be canceled all together — ended up being a barbaric mess, and on the eve, no less, of the next G20 summit, which takes places this weekend (Nov. 30-Dec. 1) in Buenos Aires. Little wonder that Marcelo Gallardo, River's technical director, told Fox Sports to tone things down a bit. It was never a "world championship," he said. Just the final of the now much-tarnished Copa Libertadores.

Perhaps Borges was right in asking himself how an "ignoble, disagreeable, aggressive and essentially commercial" sport had come to win itself so many devotees worldwide. And as last week's events show, that irrational fanaticism can lead to a whole host of other problems.

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