With the World Cup looming, nowhere is it more keenly anticipated than Argentina. It always is in a land where football is an intrinsic part of daily life, where for many the club you support goes some way to define who you are and the game is indelibly mingled with politics, both at local and national levels.
And with a national team boasting the likes of Lionel Messi, Sergio Agüero and Gonzalo Higuain and playing in neighbouring Brazil the nation expects.
But the hopes and dreams invested in the national team belie a catastrophic situation in the domestic game. The industry that produced Diego Maradona, Carlos Tevez and Angel di Maria is riddled with corruption, beset by violence and plagued by poor administration. Many grounds are crumbling, thousands of fans are scared off attending matches by the violence and there are regular deaths from clashes between rival fans and sometimes the police.
Salvemos al Futbol or Let’s Save Football, set up by supporters in 2006, lists the 286 fans killed as a result of football violence since 1922, most in the past twenty years.
In their 2013 end of year report they said: “Once again the police have not provided answers, once again the justice system has not worked, has been exasperatingly slow and inefficient. Once again we’ve become accustomed to weekly acts of vandalism and once again the year has seen another sad catalogue of deaths caused by the violence in football.”
The organisation’s president is Liliana Suarez whose son, Daniel, was killed by rival fans at an international match in Uruguay in 1995. Despite knowing the identities of her son’s killers, they’ve never been brought to justice — Liliana says as a result of protection they received from their political bosses and inertia and incompetence from the authorities, both in Uruguay and Argentina.
She told me last year: “Doing something keeps alive the memory of my son. I’m doing something so that this doesn’t happen to anyone else, to another mother who shouldn’t have to deal with this suffering.”
The root of the violence lies with the barrabrava, organised groups of hardcore supporters. They began simply supporting their teams enthusiastically but that enthusiasm has turned into something more sinister.
Unlike in the UK, club presidents at Argentine clubs are elected by the fans. Some candidates began buying the block support of the barrabrava with free match tickets, sometimes travel and hotel costs for away games. In return they got guaranteed loud support both at the ballot box and on the terraces.
Some barrabrava began demanding more. They got access to the players or concessions to sell soft drinks on the terraces or T-shirts and other club paraphernalia outside the grounds. Rival candidates for the presidency would then offer more, perhaps to turn a blind eye to the sale of drugs or the lucrative control of parking on match days.
By the nineteen-nineties being a football fan could be big business. Much of the violence seen today is between rival barrabrava from the same club battling over control of these money-making ventures. In many cases the club authorities have lost control of the monsters they helped to create. Some barrabrava are said to own part or all of some players’ contracts – a wise investment when a young player is transferred in a multi-million dollar deal to a major European club.
When Javier Cantero, the president of the once mighty Independiente club, now languishing in the Argentine second division, resolved to fight the barrabrava, he received death threats. His appeal for other club presidents and the Argentine Football Association, AFA, to join his battle fell on deaf ears.
Some of the responsibility for the current situation must fall on the AFA president, Julio Grondona. He’s lead the organisation for thirty-four years, working alongside the brutal military government in power when he took office and every civilian government since then. He’s also a senior vice-president of the world football body, FIFA.
He controls Argentine football at every level like his own personal fiefdom. He’s been accused over the years of actively encouraging the growth of the barrabrava – charges he’s met with denial or silence.
Asked in an official FIFA interview whether he had any regrets during his time in football, he responded: “None.”
Many barrabrava also double as muscle for local politicians, displaying political banners at matches and taking the drums and trumpets played on the terraces on marches and rallies.
Goals mean votes
Argentine politicians have always understood what football means to the electorate. The military government that hosted the World Cup in 1978 used it to boost its sagging support among a divided nation. It’s strongly rumoured that it bribed the Peruvian team to ensure Argentina’s passage to the final, which they won, bringing millions of Argentines onto the streets in celebration.
Five years ago President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s government bought the rights to transmit live all the first division matches. That’s ten games, played consecutively from Friday to Sunday night completely free on state television. Whether Argentines see this as an act of democratic altruism in a football mad country or a callous attempt to buy votes depends on which side of the pro or anti Kirchner political divide they sit.
The football dream machine continues producing fine young players, thanks to a well organised youth training system and quality coaches. And a life in football is still a dream, fed by images of Messi and Tevez, for millions of Argentine boys.
Hundreds of Argentine players kick their footballs abroad, not just at Barcelona, ManchesterCity and Juventus. A career at a Greek or Mexican second division club is still an escape from the shanty towns or villas that ring Argentine cities — away from the pernicious grip of the local barrabrava.
The authorities this season have continued to impose a ban on away fans travelling to games. With home fans only allowed into the grounds, the matches have lost some of their passion, the edge that can make watching a game here so thrilling. The violence between fans from the same club has not abated. But the generally safer grounds have enticed some fans from their armchairs to return to the terraces.
I went to see my local team, Argentinos Juniors on Saturday. I was searched by police on the way in and stood behind a rusty metal fence topped with barbed wire. There was little evidence of any investment in the ground from the club that nurtured and then sold for millions Diego Maradona and a whole host of others that went on to grace the national and international game. The passion, as always, was intense. The quality of the football was poor. How could it not be with more than one thousand of the best Argentine players working abroad?
But if Argentina win the World Cup in July all of the many and deep-seated problems in the domestic game, as well as the many economic and social problems in the wider society, will be forgotten, glossed over, justified. At least until the next fan is killed in a pitched battle over control of drug sales on the terraces.