Saturday, February 24, 2007

Buenos Aires' Barrabravas

The English-language media grabs hold of Argentina's hooligan crisis, the story that dominated the sporting press during Eleven Devils' two-week visit to Buenos Aires and environs. The catalyst of the current uproar occurred during the very match my wife and I attended—see the photos below—at CA River Plate's massive, historic El Monumental stadium.

Our visit to the huge bowl in northern BA took place under relatively sanitized conditions. A specialist tour group (a company known as Tangol, for your touristic convenience) picked us up at our hotel, toted us to the stadium in a rattletrap van and escorted us to our seats. Our group included three Americans, an Arsenal fan from London and a couple of Aussies, and we plunked down in the upper-middle-class "platea" seats alongside a large group of Japanese tourists. All the same, the experience was completely different from attending a sporting event in the United States. A miniature army of over 1,000 cops swarmed the stadium, enforcing various crowd-control tactics and taking their trained attack dogs for walkies. The seating arrangements were improvisational, the concrete terraces and wooden benches austere, the concorses cramped. Though we encountered absolutely no problems, the narrow gates and tunnels opening into the stadium bowl put me in mind of a number of highly unpleasant stories of crowd congestion, crushing and trampling.

Such was the scene in our comparatively pricey, comfortable and sedate section—the part of the stadium dominated by neutral foreigners, seven-year-olds and granddads. (The latter demographic provided a very solid does of entertainment in the form of profanity-laced invective and recriminations against River's lackluster play; I now know a number of fascinating phrases in the local "Castellano" dialect.) Up in the second-deck "popular" sections, masses of humanity packed against nasty-looking, barnyard-esque "safety barriers"—mosh-style cauldrons hemmed in by barbed wire and cop battalions. These are the tribal stomping grounds of the barrabravas: the quasi-official, semi-illegal supporters' mafias generally implicated in futbol argentino's violence problem.

These scrums were, of course, the engines driving the ceaseless chants, songs, tifo displays and mass pogos that made the otherwise atrocious match between River Plate and suburban, non-descript Lanus worth the price of admission. And that's where the violence issue—in Argentina and, it would seem, Italy and elsewhere—begins to be less a cut-and-dried public-order issue and more a Borgesian labyrinth of politics and money.

The clubs maintain off-the-books links with barrabravas outfits—that's just an open secret. Money, tickets and jobs flow through those channels. It's a serious question, then, the issue of factional control and influence, particularly in a place where money, tickets and jobs are not exactly easy to come by. The fighting that erupted at the River v. Lanus match didn't pit home fans against away fans; rival groups of River supporters squared off. How would that happen if nothing tangible were at stake?

The complicity of the clubs is outrageous on one hand, but understandable on the other. Frankly, the quality of league footbal in Argentina is...mixed. I watched one match in person and at least bits and pieces of a dozen more. I saw some beautiful stuff and a lot of really bad stuff; I saw Boca Juniors play absolutely symphonic soccer in a 4-0 demolition of Banfield and then bumble around like idiots in a Copa Libertadores match against Bolivar. River has some excellent players—Nelson Enrique Rivas, a majestic and cool-headed Colombian defender, dominated the Lanus match—but didn't seem like anything special. Beyond the Big Two, who suck up most of the bling and media oxygen, clubs live hand-to-mouth off their committed supporters. The barrabravas complete the spectacle of football; indeed, provide about 70 percent of the entertainment value of a live match. They're the reason tourists pay premium prices to be herded, penned and inconvenienced to the extent that a two-hour match becomes an eight-hour experience. They provide the sport's soul and are simultaneously killing the game.

Solutions? Tricky. If you over-sanitize the "product," you end up with American sports: the cultural equivalent of touring Broadway shows, all pricey style with no social substance. Argentina cannot financially support a Premiership-style house cleaning based on massive TV revenues and high ticket costs. Punishing clubs wholesale—with multi-match stadium bans, for example—gives all the power to the malfactors and makes thousands of innocents pay for others' misdeeds.

At a bare minimum, however, clubs should be forced to sever their links with criminal elements or face criminal prosecution. Stadiums should be upgraded so no fans have to endure Animal Farm-style conditions. In other news, I should be made king and given god-like powers; the poor should be fed and the naked clothed. In the meantime, maybe River Plate can reschedule its home games at PGE Park—after what they're going through, dealing with the Timbers Army's occasional dirty words would be a proverbial garden stroll.

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