Argentina’s problems with football hooliganism were thrown into the spotlight by the postponement of the historic Copa Libertadores final between Buenos Aires arch rivals River Plate and Boca Juniors.
The match had to be postponed twice after River fans attacked the Boca team bus, and the South American football federation ultimately chose to relocate it to Spain.
But this phenomenon is not confined to just one country in South America, where several others also wrestle with the scourge of football-related thuggery.
It’s a blight that has left hundreds of people dead and which transcends local rivalries and street brawls among fans, into organized crime and corruption facilitated by politicians.
“In Argentina, people tend to think that football violence is monopolized by the Barras bravas” organized hooligan groups, said sociologist Diego Murzi.
The member of the Let’s Save Football (Salvemos al Futbol) charity told AFP that “what is overlooked is that in Argentina there is a football culture in which violence is (seen as) legitimate, and not just by the hooligans, but by all the sectors that participate.”
Even so, football violence is fed by illicit businesses run by hooligan organizations.
In Paraguay, “behind the violent fans there are drugs, prostitution” and business relations between them and “both sporting and political leaders,” said Eugenio Ocampos, an expert at the Paraguayan public ministry.
Football hooligans in Argentina are deeply ingrained in the myriad of money-making businesses that operate around football matches.
Hooligan groups use their criminal connections “to obtain benefits in the resale of tickets, control of parking, food stalls within stadiums, participation in political and union activities, and activities in the world of crime,” said Murzi.
Legal and illegal businesses
In Colombian, the hooligan groups are even involved in money laundering.
“The fans operate underground where they can move certain funds that allow them to keep themselves going, both with legal and illegal businesses,” sociologist John Alexander Castro, a football violence expert at Colombia’s national university, told AFP.
Those groups organize sports events, arrange the sale and distribution of replica jerseys, and also sell drugs.
The phenomenon is slightly different in Brazil, where the “groups linked to organized crime and drug trafficking infiltrate organized supporter groups,” said Mauricio Murad, author of a book on football violence.
He told AFP that the organized criminals are the ones who provoke fans into committing acts of violence.
Unlike the Argentine groups, these criminals “have no relation with the clubs but join the supporters groups as fans so that they can sell drugs and weapons.”
The battle to rid football of these destabilizing elements that sow carnage is hamstrung by police collaboration, said Murzi.
In Argentina, “all the police know the hooligans, it suits the police for them to exist. They run a ton of businesses alongside the hooligans.”
Murzi said the police are “contributing more to the problem than helping to solve it.”
It’s not just police collaborating, but politicians and clubs.
Ocampos says that in Paraguay, it is common knowledge that hooligans “receive financial support from sporting and political leaders.”
Chile and Paraguay sanctions
There are some efforts to rein in the criminal and hooligan groups, though.
In Chile, in 2012, President Sebastian Pinera promulgated a law against violence in stadiums that was updated in 2015 ahead of the Copa America in the country.
It included punishments for xenophobic chanting by fans and even fines for violence away from the stadium, at training grounds, celebrations or during the teams’ travel.
The law allowed authorities to fine clubs whose fans caused damage during football matches, punish ticket-touting and ban supporters’ group leaders from having close relationships with club bosses.
There was also a clause allowing known violent fans to be barred from sports events.
Between 2015 and 2017, the number of fans banned from stadiums rose by 55 percent.
Paraguay operates a zero tolerance policy.
“We’ve decided to apply tougher sentences. We no longer allow substitute measures: offenders are held directly in pre-trial custody,” said Ocampos.
He says that’s an effective measure because “these people would die to go to the ground. They seem really fanatical, hence the ban is like cutting off their arms.”
But Murzi isn’t so hopeful for Argentina, where “the approach is always the same, thinking that violence is carried out by a group of savages, nutters, idiots or misfits.
“That’s what the press and authorities call it but it’s an over-simplification.
“The hooligan groups of Boca (Juniors) and River (Plate, the country’s two most popular sides) were decapitated twice and nothing has changed.”
In Brazil, authorities have done “practically nothing,” according to Murad.
“There’s no preventative plan, there’s no police training plan to deal with crowds, there’s no policy to include the clubs.”