Barras Bravas. The Dark Side of the Argentine Football

Course #6 / Football Culture

Maldad | Evil

The youthful maximalism is a dangerous and harmful thing. «Why, why did this happen?» – these questions are the first ones that come in mind when people lose their relatives and beloved ones in absurd circumstances. And it is even more painful when a young life is taken away in the noisy streets of Buenos Aires because of the conflicts that are related to football. For some of them, this eternal South American megapolis turns into a bloody area for reprisal. Dystopia. A wild world with rules that many might not fully understand. People from the Western world would most likely try to avoid the possibility of being there even in the daylight.

His name was Javier. The story of the 17-year old ended suddenly, but this end was somewhat predictable. Buenos Aires is not really a San Salvador, but it still has its own unique colors with some dark tones. It is a unique historically-cultural cocktail where there is no clear concept about good and evil. In the morning, the young man woke up and soon went outside his house, where he lived alongside his deeply religious family. The same evening, his cold and soulless body was lying on the dirty street after one of the many conflicts that occurred in the Fuerte Apache neighborhood. Word by word, loud noise, screams, and Javier was killed by a hand that had a tattoo with the image of Our Lady of Lujan on it.

Specifics of South America. For the people of the lower class religion always had an important place in their everyday lives. Christianity is embodied in the DNA of these people. Even the youth that goes into the criminal world with all their souls are living side by side with religion. The mix of the pagan and Catholic traditions have formed for them a unique view on the good, evil, and the role of the divine powers in their lives. In the ancient pagan traditions, Gods were often very powerful and cruel towards people. Even though Europeans came to the Americas with fire and sword, the concept of their religious beliefs was very different: they were preaching about mercy and forgiveness. Latino people deeply soaked up all these religious contrasts.

Young gang members tattoos the image of Christ as a symbol of protection. After seeing someone with such a tattoo, nobody will dare to mess up with this person out of respect to the religious symbol. For others, religion-themed tattoos are a kind of sacrifice to God – they hope to get a blessing for their deeds. And it is not an issue that most of those deeds are linked to criminal activities. The religious concept is adjusted under the realities of young people. They decide for themselves how God is looking upon their deeds and what they can expect from him.

In such reality, Javier strongly believed that if you will be fearless then it will give you a chance to escape the fate of their parents, who are working hard all life but cannot escape their poor neighborhood. Life loves the fearless ones and they rule the world. This illusion gave a hope that persistence in conflicts will reward him eventually. Minor conflicts were a common thing for Javier, as it was for most of the youngsters from Fuerte Apache neighborhood. They were the kids of the streets, always left for themselves. Javier saw a lot of examples when his cousins got in involved in fatal accidents that led them straight to prison. However, Javier never saw this as something unusual. People rarely learn from mistakes that are done by others, he was ready to make mistakes by himself.

He made a mistake. The instinct of self-preservation turned off for a second and there was a flow of words, full of insults. Pinche cabron! Son of a bitch! It was enough. It was the furious look and intonation that decided the destiny of Javier, who fell lifeless in a few seconds. The young man fell from the hand of a person, who was the analog of what he envisioned himself in the future.

Identitad | Identity

Argentines are proud people. Through several generations, they embodied and supported a strong affection to their home, neighborhood, and football club. The last one was strong enough to give birth to an interesting phenomenon in Argentina. Barras bravas – powerful supporter groups that unify large masses of people that are highly loyal to their favorite football club.

Commune. Football plays an important role in the lives of the working-class people, who gather together in the nearest stadium after a week of hard work, full of routine. It helps them to splash out all the emotions. It is also a good way to communicate with their neighbors and simply have a good time. Football unites the fans of the local amateur teams into friendly communes. The people of small and big quarters of the Argentine cities come together to watch their brothers, cousins, husbands, and friends playing football. The level of football in these games might lack the quality, but the tense emotions can be felt throughout the 90 minutes. Even there is a clear line between the friends and foes. You don’t need to be a member of barras bravas to get involved in a conflict with the guys, who came to support the team from the neighboring quarter or barrio. To support your quarter and barrio is a matter of honor.

In such a tough and humble environment there often begins the path of the famous footballers. Matches of the amateur teams are sometimes visited by the scouts of the biggest Argentinian clubs, who try not to miss the next Maradona or Tevez. They also grew up in this kind of environment and for many, they became the living example of the legal opportunity to escape the harsh reality thanks to football. Young people from poor neighborhoods understand that. You don’t need to tell them twice about motivation and desire to win. For most of them, the opportunity to get in the squad of Boca Juniors or River Plate is a childhood dream. Footballers of these teams are living idols, and such players, like Diego Maradona – God-like figures.

To reach the status of a star is a difficult task to achieve. Many wander around the lowest divisions of Argentine football, while others retire and return to ordinary life. The most desperate ones spend their days on the streets, slowly filling their bodies with cheap synthetic drugs that eventually leads to death.

Guerra | War

In Argentina, football is historically tied to violence. For some, it is not just a part of their lives, it is their war. Something worth killing and even losing their own life. Statistics proofs it. The first football-related death happened in 1924. Even in those years, there were cases when football caused serious conflicts and violence. Within time, there were more bad precedents and since the mid-’80s there were about 5 deaths per year caused by the football-related conflicts. The overall number of deaths is more than 250 throughout all the years. Most of them happened in the last 25 years.

«On Sundays, they attend the stadiums, wave the flags, and support their team. The rest of the time, they are helping the politicians and rich functionaries being their bodyguards. They provide powerful support for those, who can pay good money»

The influence of Barras Bravas has reached astronomical scales. They can impact a lot of processes in Argentina and local politicians still cannot find a tool to take control of these groups. It is all because of money. In the beginning, it all was very humble, but the football clubs helped their loyal fans to grow into something more significant. Initially, they gave them free shirts and buses for away games. These were a small, but pleasant extras that only added up the fan loyalty towards their club. Eventually, some of the members of the fan groups were charismatic and enterprising enough to understand that a large and well-organized fan movement can become a great tool to gain wealth and power.

Considering the realities of Argentina, the violence soon became of the main traits of Barras Bravas. Their members soon turned into street soldiers, who had to show their loyalty to the club not only in the stadium but also in the clashes with the opposing team fans. The most active and brave fighters grew through the ranks of the Barras Bravas hierarchy and earned a great authority. Such rules were simple and easy to understand for young people from poor barrios. They tried to prove themselves as good as they could, be fearless, and grow their authority to later proudly deal with all the problems of their commune.

«Every night I walk around the streets of my city and people are looking through me as if I do not exist. I’m a poor and inconspicuous guy, invisible for the most. But on weekends, everything changes. People see us. People see me. When you are a part of Barras, you have already become someone. Without them, I’m just a poor guy from the barrio, who cannot feed his family,» told one of the Barras Bravas members.

Poder | Power

Commercialization of football took a great growth and the appetite of the Barras Bravas leaders grew with it. They wanted to get their share from the profits of their team. You can say that in some way, football became less important and business became the priority. Fanatic and loyal masses became a great cover for the dirty business of their leaders.

«Everything starts peacefully and a group of fans come together to support their team, but with the time – they take this distorted view and turn into a gang of criminals. They have nothing common with their football club anymore, but they continue to associate themselves with it. In the end, they do not care about their club. They are only interested in the sum that they can make in this process,» told one of the former members of Barras Bravas.

One of the first sources of income for them was the ticket and attributes sales. They take the lion share of this income because most of the clubs are heavily controlled by them. The leaders of Barras have direct access to the directors of the clubs and they can without any hesitation tell them what they think about a specific situation relating to the club. If they have any negative feelings against the coach or players, it is clear that this specific person will not last in the club for a long time. However, sometimes the influence of Barras Bravas can be useful for club management. If they need to sign a new contract with a player and he asks too much money, on certain terms – Barras Bravas can change that. They will shout insults towards the specific player and they can even show signs of warning that it is better to agree to the offered terms and make concessions.

On the other side, if the club management conflicts with Barras Bravas, there can be major changes in stuff. There are no untouchables and even the presidents of the clubs can be removed if the Barras show pressure. Usually, there are two scenarios. The first one is peaceful and the club agrees to changes. The other one is less pleasant, there can be threats or even acts of violence for the most stubborn opponents. Argentine journalist Gustavo Gravia even once told The Guardian that Barras Bravas are getting their share from the transfer incomes and salaries of footballers. Up to 30%… There is no clear evidence, but considering all the influence Barras has, such a statement has the right to exist.

In Argentina, it will be hard to surprise anyone, if journalists or members of governing bodies mention Barras Bravas in the same sentence with the criminal world. In the stadiums, they feel like at home. The main mass is creating a tense atmosphere throughout 90 minutes, while others are doing business, selling legal and illegal goods. Drugs and weapons are a part of the business. However, you should not make a direct connection between the Barras Bravas and the criminal groups of Argentina. There might be some connection, but it is very skin-deep. Selling of drugs in big amounts and the drug-trafficking is a whole another game with way higher stakes. The leaders of Barras Bravas have enough power and authority to stay away from these serious criminal activities. They can earn enough from football.

Also, Barras Bravas have a strong internal fight for power. The leaders of Barras often struggle to maintain their power. They often have to persecute the possible revolutions without any mercy. This is a business where only the strongest can survive. In the race for the great profits, the hate and competition between the leaders of one club might be bigger than towards the opposing team. These conflicts often turn out violent in the streets of Argentina. Fights, shootings, and assassinations won’t surprise anyone.

There was an exponential example of the internal conflict when the former leader of La 12 (Boca Juniors) Barras Bravas group Rafael Di Zeo returned after a 3-year sentence. Television cameras caught a moment when Di Zeo with his supporters was one the opposite stand to his successor Mauro Martin. «O-le-le! O-la-la! We gonna kill all the traitors!» – loudly shouted the supporters of Di Zeo. Martin answered shortly and clearly – showing a gesture of cutting throat.

Corruption | Corruption

One hand is washing the other. Every such organization would eventually be gone if a country would have a clear system that works without any interruptions. There is a law and there is a punishment. But in Argentina, it does not work this way. For decades, corruption is blossoming on all levels and helping the growth of criminal activities and such organized groups as Barras Bravas. They have strong connections and patronage almost on every level. The police, judges, and even the politicians show them their support and cover them up if there is such a need. One call from a politician or judge and a case against Barras Bravas members will be closed without any questions. Everyone gets their share and everyone is happy.

Those, who try to fight against Barras Bravas have a hard time. They are at constant war because it is a fight not only against the members of Barras but also against the corrupted colleagues, who cover them. Threats are a common thing. In 2013, the chief of the Argentine Federal Police Romeo Di Santo had to experience this. A month after two officers of the sports event security were arrested in a case that was related to Barras Bravas and police, the chief got an anonymous note: «Di Santo, we will find you. 5H». The code was the number of the apartment where the police boss lived. There was no clear evidence, but he was confident that this note was sent by Barras Bravas. Because they do not care who comes in their way. If someone will try to interrupt their business, there will be a declaration of war.

What is interesting is the fact that Barras Bravas are usually apolitical. They are not right-wing, left-wing, or centrists. If there are upcoming elections in Argentina, they can support a specific party or candidate and bring them a good amount of guaranteed votes. Everything depends on the fee that Barras gonna receive for their involvement. In Argentina, it is hard to find a party that has not asked for their help. The members of large unions also do not shy away from the help of Barras to get a certain candidate in the power of their organization. But this is a question of loyalty, just a business for Barras. One day they can support one candidate, the next day show support to his opponent. Nothing personal.

Herencia | Heritage

The influx of big money changed a lot in modern football, including the attitude of players towards the clubs they represent. Players rarely care about loyalty. Now many young Argentine players are dreaming about playing for Boca Juniors or River Plate to display themselves and get a chance to move to Europe. They do not want to stay in Argentina. Largely, because of great pressure from the Barras Bravas, who know almost everything about the private lives of their players. Including such nuances, as the information in which players are using drugs or even intimate details about their relationships with women.

Until the ’90s, Barras Bravas had great respect towards their stars, but when the biggest players slowly started to move to European leagues, the loyalty and respect from the fans started to fade. As the leaders of Barras Bravas saw their popularity growing, they became the idols for the Argentine youth. Footballers and coaches rarely declined lucrative deals from the abroad, but Barras Bravas always remained with their club. Such loyalty attracted and earned respect. Everything else did not matter anymore.

The governing bodies of Argentina tried to fight Barras Bravas in an open war several times, but many agree that this phenomenon will continue to live and prosper for a long time. It is like a fight against windmills. There are no tools on how to fight this. All the football realities give an insight into the state of the Argentinian society. The system has rotten from corruption, political intrigues and various social issues are leaving all these football-related questions in shadows. People remember about them only when someone dies. Otherwise, it is not a trending issue. Overall, the loud statements from the government – it is just a populism. Argentines are used to this for a long time.

The Dutch expert of the mass behavior Otto Adang summed up and recognized that in Argentina there exists a unique brand of football violence: «The European methods of dealing with these issues will be useless in Argentina. European hooligans were just a bunch of losers, who gathered together. They had no relation to power. In Argentina – fans are a part of the business. They take part in the sales and shopping of footballers, controls the sales of tickets and they have amazing political connections».

«You really believe that if I will be locked in prison, the violence gonna end? Do you really believe that if you would take us all together in one place and kill, the violence would end? No, it will never end. You know why? Because this is a school. This is heritage. Heritage» – said the famous Barras Bravas leader Rafael Di Zeo.

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