A Night of Fútbol

by Gaurav Dhar

A Wednesday night spent drudging in a research lab is a harsh order, but the merit of investing the extra hours is that they pass relatively unimpinged.  With experiments running and neither man nor beast in sight, one is free to read, deliberate, or soliloquize at leisure.  Often the greatest discoveries are born in that twilight when distractions diffuse away, but inspiration does not wait for those who are not ready.  You can only take your chance once or never.  Thus, these thoughts must be kept at throne if one’s labor is to bear any fruit.

Unless, of course, there are two cracking games of football to be had.

To that lure I embarked to the computer room hoping to catch either Belgrano-River or Santos-Peñarol from a, er, trusted stream. Upon opening the door two graduate students came to view, but I was unfazed.  Set on achieving some footballing fulfillment within the lengthy downtime imposed by my work, I strode forward to announce that I would be watching some games beside them — be it or be it not an inconvenience.

But before I’d made it halfway across, I could already hear the excited sounds of commentary which meant only one thing.  Before I’d made it halfway across, one of them had already stood up and declared, “Sorry man, we’re going to be watching some games here.  Hope it doesn’t bother you.”

The irony took a while to set in, but regaining focus, I peered at the screen and asked, “Is that the relegation playoff with River?”

“You know this shit?”, came the half-surprised, half-delighted reply.  Even at a large university in the US it is uncommon to find someone interested in a club from outside the major, televised European leagues, albeit one with such a storied history like River.

We started to talk a bit about the unfortunate circumstances surrounding Ortega and other factors in River’s fall, after which Alfredo, the Argentine, introduced me to his Brazilian friend, Casio, who was watching the Copa Libertadores final next to him.  Immediately, my crash-course on South American football began.

When the commentator cried, “Pecho frio!”, after a player passed the ball backwards, Alfredo took the time to explain that the term literally means “cold chested”, although more figuratively it’s used to describe a player who has his back to his opponent and his shoulders hunched in to protect the ball.  In such a position he looks exactly as one might if they were shivering in the cold, and “pecho frio” is used to taunt his fear and unwillingness towards playing the ball.

I learnt to join in unison with the chants of “Ri’B’er!”, their renaming given they should fall to the Segunda.  Alfredo, as a Boca Juniors fan, took a particular thrill in repeating the phrase, while Casio dismissed all Argentine clubs together, more focused on seeing his Santos through to victory.

Then, inevitably, the conversation came to tactics. “European clubs have never really had the same sort of player who, in South America, always plays in this position”, said Alfredo drawing a circle around the number 10 on the board, before labeling it as “Enganche”.  Talk turned to even slighter nuances in the game, comparing the modern European stopper who drops back in defense when his team does not have possession versus the South American libero who still thrusts forward from farthest back after winning the ball.

For all the debate, the differences between South American and European football were plainly seen in the matches themselves. The Libertadores final was much choppier and less refined than a Champions League match, but filled with bursts of quality and spontaneous ideas.  Replays from the Brazilian broadcast contained more close-ups of the players’ feet and dribbles, rather than alternate camera angles of the pitch which might inform of where previously unseen teammates were.  “Diving” and “simulation” were common, but so were crunching, uncompromising tackles.  The mentality was such that “diving” was seen as a form of cleverness and wit, not a recourse taken because one is weak.

As the matches proceeded, I was taken by the exuberant atmosphere of the stadia and the passion of the fans, but it was at that moment when events turned grim.  Just as it’s now reappeared in countless websites and channels, a group of fans broke past the protective fence surrounding the terrace and charged onto the pitch harassing the River players.  Bizarrely, the fans were River’s own, and they faced no resistance against their acts.  They were merely herded back over the fence by stewards, while their mission was already accomplished, having delayed the match for nearly a half hour.  They continued to taunt the players, thrashing against the iron crosslinks whilst making lewd gestures.  It was an odd sight to behold, literally as if one were looking from the perspective of the criminal, with the policemen appearing to be the men behind bars.

Caught in honest curiosity, I couldn’t help but ask, “Why do they do it?”  But before I could realize just how clumsily I had phrased the question, Alfredo gave the short, plaintive answer: “Because they’re allowed to.”

Still the thought stuck to my mind, only being reinforced when Peñarol initiated a brawl immediately after losing the Libertadores final.  For all the beauty and color of the South American game, the violence was, and is, an unnecessary black mark.  But to overlook it in favor of the passion of the fans or to diagnose it solely as a manifestation of that passion is a mistake.

The current situation is the result of decades of an improperly addressed problem, and even today most nations fail to accept responsibility.  Notably, the Argentine FA refuses to even give it mention with ranking officials claiming that violence is a societal issue and not a footballing one.  One member famously absolved himself saying, “Don’t throw the corpses on our doorstep”, and AFA President Julio Grondona himself fashions a ring with the inscription “Todo Pasa”, literally “anything goes.”

Still, to claim that the problem is not football’s is akin to saying that there are no incidents or outbursts in the stadiums, an absurd denial.  While the blame will continue to be shifted with the same ferocity that has seen the bloodshed generated, the government must take a sizeable portion of it.  Governmental interference in football reached a peak in the 1950’s when Perón rose to power. He empowered the labor unions, and as a result the blue collar worker’s role in football also flourished.  Soon this led to the formation of the notorious barra bravas, supporter groups-turned-gangs who are central to the hooligan issue.

The barra bravas control many of the decisions which come to pass in South American football clubs.  The exchange of power was initiated by the directors who sought to increase influence and ticket sales by employing the gangs as publicists, but rapidly the barras claimed control of all aspects of the club, from the sale of refreshments to the player transfers.  Nowadays, the barras feel entirely entitled to the elevated status they hold.  Legendary barra leader Rafa di Zeo once espoused,

We are like one of the club’s legs.  We’ve got a lot of influence because we’ve been part of the club since we were young.  We go to the club everyday of our lives whilst the players and management are there for a limited period of time.

This sort of everyman, socialist belief is one which is attractive to common fans, and indeed, the lines between the average supporter, hooligan, and organized criminal are becoming increasingly difficult to delineate.  In fact, the barras operate as free associations, and the regular at the terrace can rise to be the head of the gang in the open elections which are held.  Ultimately the barras provide supporters with a sense of control which has largely been lost to them.

The most troublesome aspect of it all is that crime has now risen unfettered in all walks of life, undoubtedly due to the organized nature of the barras.  As a sad twist on the ideology that “violence is a societal issue and not a footballing one”, violence has spread from football to society. Truthfully though, the origin of the violence is irrelevant.  Nowadays it is not so much a product of distinct forces as it is a blanket response.

Thus, the question arises not “who is responsible?”, but “who can take responsibility?”  So far, the government has proved inept.  While it has tried various measures to curb hooliganism, all have backfired.  As seen, the soaring fences which entrench the terraces only make it easier for hooligans to perpetrate with impunity.  Laws have been set so that matches will be annulled if violence arises, but this only goads offenders, knowing that they can interfere if their team is losing.  The various levels of punishment imposed upon the hooligans are nonsensical, considering that they are willing to risk their own lives by their acts as is.  Violence cannot be dissuaded with punishment; rather its incentives must be abolished.

Consequently, violence cannot be taken to be the nature of man when he has been given no other opportunities.  It must be held that the citizens and fans are still pure in their essence.  It must be held that the circumstances are what have driven them away from their principles.

After all one can have infinite patience, but not enough time.  One can hold boundless affection without a single outlet for it.  But anger and wrath are fires which need no spark to start, no fuel to sustain.  Still, eventually they will have consumed everything in sight.

2 Responses

  1. ForeBarca says:

    Top article this one, Gaurav. I have read similar pieces by Marcela Mora y Araujo and Tim Vickery at both The Guardian and Sports Ilustrated.

    I have watched all 3 intercontinental club tournaments. I have noticed that there is far more wing play in European club football than in South America. Moreover, the camera work is utterly shoddy. Sometimes I have watched matches that makes it seems that I am viewing the game from a galaxy far, far away. And, yes, there is always an air of violence both in the stands and among the players at all these club matches.

    1. Gaurav Dhar says:

      Thanks.

      The South American game really is something else, and its much more than the untoward incidents which plague it. Although they seem to be occurring more regularly.

      But, I’ve also heard that in many clubs the barra bravas populations are withering with inner conflicts consuming the gangs from inside.

      And I quite like an Eduardo Galleano quote that Mora y Araujo uses in one of her articles:

      “As a sport football is not condemned to generate violence even though violence sometimes uses it as an escape valve. The power system, on the other hand, is a violent factor… its injustices and humiliations poison the soul of the people, its values reward those without scruples and its traditional impunity stimulates crime and helps perpetuate it as a national custom.”

      That pretty much says it for me.

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