Argentines are well known the world over for their passion for football. What’s not such common knowledge is how that very fervor is helping police catch criminals.

In Argentina, the country that gave the world footballing geniuses of the likes of Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi, it seems that fugitives from justice can remain hidden only as long as there isn’t a match on.

Over the last two years, police have laid their hands on 424 criminals that had gone to watch a football match.

The Secure Stand operation that saw police check the identity of 7.5 million fans in almost 800 operations across 60 stadiums in Argentina has resulted in thieves, rapists and violent criminals finding themselves behind bars.

On top of that, another 1,507 known thugs were denied entry to their game of choice.

That’s what the operation was originally set up for: to prevent hooligans from entering stadiums, as Argentine football suffered in the grip of growing fan violence.

‘Can’t change passion’

In the Oscar-winning 2010 film, “The Secret in Their Eyes,” an Argentine football fan says: “A guy can change anything. His face, his home, his family, his girlfriend, his religion, his God.

“But there’s one thing he can’t change: He can’t change his passion.”

That passion has caught up with numerous criminals in the country. Still, that is barely a drop in the ocean, given Argentina has 50,000 fugitives.

It’s not just violent crime in the authorities’ sights, though, as a woman scammer found out when she turned up with her two sons to watch her beloved Talleres de Cordoba play.

She was detained and her husband called to collect the children so she could be formally arrested.

Football-related violence had become so bad that away supporters were barred from traveling to games last year, a measure that has started to be rolled back as a result of the successful Secure Stand operation.

“We’ve had an interesting curve since implementing the Secure Stand program,” the government’s director of sporting security, Guillermo Madero said.

“The number of fugitives is the same and those getting access to the stadium is declining. That means the hooligans have stopped going (to games).”

In September 2017, a man wanted for sexual abuse and aggravated theft, who had been on the run for 11 days, was apprehended trying to get into the ground to watch Racing play San Martin de San Juan.

Juan Matias, a vice president at Newell’s Old Boys, the team Messi supports, had been wanted for drug smuggling. In June, he was caught trying to get into a Union game in Santa Fe.

Fruitful derbies

Some of those prevented from entering stadiums were vetoed over incidents that took place during the World Cup in Russia.

Derby matches have proved the most fruitful for police as fans – criminals included – simply can’t resist the urge to be at their side’s biggest games.

Last November, at a clash between local Buenos Aires rivals San Lorenzo and Huracan, police fingered Silvio Alejandro Rodriguez, who had been sought over sexual assault and corruption of minors.

The most unforgettable arrest, though, was in February during the River-Estudiantes derby, also in Buenos Aires.

Nicolas Bordon was wanted for aggravated homicide, drug trafficking, illicit association and resisting authority.

One of his victims was a police officer, much to the “dismay” of those “that participated in his arrest,” according to Madero.

Given the number of police officers operating around football grounds, it would seem a risk hardly worth taking for a wanted criminal.

But psychologist Betina Payaslian says they simply can’t help themselves.

“They think they’re doing nothing but trying to avoid the trap, but all they end up doing is searching for it along their path,” she said.

“That’s the neurosis trap and it’s a snag. What perplexes them is not understanding how they ended up there in a place that feels cruelly familiar.”