From the only part of the stadium that is fenced off and has barbed wire running along the top, comes the relentless thumping of drums and brass instruments, heard only when the non-stop singing lowers its volume for a moment. Bodies, some shirtless and glistening with the sweat of a hot Colombian evening, some covered with tattoos, but most covered in Deportivo Cali’s green and white colours. Bouncing, thrusting and flailing arms, and nodding heads all moving at the same time and singing loudly, in a remarkable show of choreography and enthusiasm. This was my first experience of a South American football match, and through the barbed wire was my first sight of a Barras Bravas (the South American version of football hooligans).
The now infamous scenes that took place at half time during the second leg of Boca Juniors vs River Plate on 14th May shocked football fans all over, and showed explicitly the violent potential of these organized groups. How could fans have access to the players to the point of attacking them? I am from the UK, a culture of high security football stadiums where misdemeanors are punished severely. So, to me, these actions seem truly remarkable.
The main explanations for why the Barras Bravas remain unopposed in South America, particularly in Argentina, included lack of political will and lack of sufficient power. The Barras Bravas command a staggering amount of power within the football clubs. They act as a violent chief whip for the club’s presidential campaigns, sell contraband inside the stadiums, and even receive fees from club transfers and the players themselves. Every new incident brings with it a desperate acknowledgment that these actions are damaging the game, and ruining it for the supporters that have no interest in violence, but despite this, the Barras Bravas remain as powerful as ever.
English hooligans have received a different treatment. During the 80’s and 90’s there was terrible violence in football stadiums through England, but through a series of political and social reforms England managed to reduce its hooliganism to the point that, according to UK Home Office figures, the 2013/14 season had the lowest amount of football-related arrests ever. Reforms such as all-seated stadiums with registered seats, tougher sentences on offenders, banning orders for all misbehaving fans, a zero tolerance from clubs and a deliberate attempt to increase the fan base of football, caused, what Tim Vickery described as, a “ground swell” against the hooligans who eventually became a minority inside English football stadiums.
Clubs are owned by their fans in South America. Fans register as members of the club and vote in a chairman or president to oversee club affairs. As such, groups that can help “influence” the voting can be given free passes when it comes to their behaviour inside the stadiums. South American clubs would need to make similar reforms to England to see a substantial change in violence, but this massive undertaking would need the aforementioned political will and power that currently does not exist.
Back to my South American football experience and I confess to spending much of Deportivo Cali´s 1-0 defeat to Huila staring wide-eyed at the “Frente Radical Verdiblanco” (Deportivo’s Barras Bravas). Their huge banners and streamers, the incredible noise they generate, and the fervent solidarity they all seem to share – the novelty is not lost on me. And it’s novel because these fans represent the soul of the game. The fan that is prepared to jump, sing and cheer for the entire match, even as his side loses, shows the relentless passion and commitment from South American fans that many feel has been lost in England.
The reforms that brought civility to stadiums in England also brought a new type of fan, equally committed but without the overt passion once displayed. English stadiums can, as a result, feel quite flat and with prices for matches at an all-time high, fans are increasingly seeking bars and other communal areas outside of the stadium to support their team at a fraction of the cost.
The challenges for controlling these Barras Bravas are vast and, inevitably, very expensive. Removing dangerous fans, which are undeniably tarnishing the football world with their actions is a necessity, as the example in Argentina shows, and these people are to be wholeheartedly condemned. However, in my view, authorities should be careful not to lose the passion inside stadiums that makes their football so iconic and South America so special.