A fascinating story has emerged during the past week concerning the arrival of Argentine supporters in South Africa, among them many leaders of supporter groups from various clubs in Argentina, effectively gangsters, referred to as Barrabravas at home. Incredibly, about 30 are said to have arrived at the World Cup on the same plane carrying the national team with all its superstars and Maradona. Ten of the arrivals have already been deported back to Buenos Aires. Of the remainder, most have shacked up at a boarding school near Pretoria where they have caused no problems so far, though journalists have been cautioned not to come around asking questions. A plane load carrying 238 more Argentine supporters is set for arrival on Wednesday.
To understand the situation, it is necessary to understand Argentine futbol culture. Every club in Argentina, whatever the echelon, has not only “civilian” supporters but also hard core contingents integrally associated with the club. Everywhere the club plays, this group of supporters delivers a tremendous spectacle with songs, banners, flares in solidarity with the club they live for. This is essential to the Argentine sporting experience. Conversely, in a lifeless stadium without the incendiary atmosphere, the appeal of the encounter becomes greatly diminished. The electricity in the stadium is every bit as important as the match itself, if not more, and the people that create and deliver this atmosphere on the standing room only terraces of the stadiums are the Barrabravas.
Barrabravas are effectively organized with comandantes, sub-comandantes and soldiers. They are on hand wherever their club plays in the world. The leaders have relationships with the club presidents and often receive money for travel to away matches and procurement of flags or banners. They do not have to buy tickets. Their ingress is assured by the club bosses, partly for want, partly out of fear. Their contribution to the spectacle is so essential that often they deliver the entire spectacle. Many players strongly identify with the Barras, having risen from the same economic ranks of society. Idolized players receive mass adulation from the Barrabravas, which Diego – for instance – described as the greatest feeling in the world, but out of favor players can become targets after poor performances. Over time, the Barra leaders also developed strong economic power. Barras run everything around the stadiums, including game day businesses like food stands, parking and shirt sales. There are no commissioners, no licensing, no corporations, no behavior control – only popular culture in Argentine stadiums.
During the past couple of years, with an eye on the World Cup, some Barras have tried to expand this kind of relationship to the national team. In exchange for a promise to restrain from violence, Barrabravas from a number of clubs organized themselves into a union of sort called Hinchadas Unidas de Argentina (HUA). The political leader of HUA, Marcelo Mello, is widely viewed as connected to the government of Cristina Fernandez and her husband, former President Nestor Kirschner. Mello is seen also as the financial linchpin of HUA. Clearly many Barras, most of whom come from the poorest barrios of Buenos Aires, lack the resources to get to South Africa and all have received money that ultimately came from the government for their trip to the World Cup. Mello wants that special Argentine stadium atmosphere to be with the national team and his project brought to South Africa the characters that can deliver it.
Not all got to stay. The ten sent back to Buenos Aires included notorious gangsters Pablo “Bebote” Alvarez, the leader of the Independiente Barrabravas, Andres “Pillin” Bracamonte, chief of the Rosario Central Barrabravas known as Los Guerreros, Julio Cesar “Cara de Goma” Navarro, Bracamonte’s right hand man, and Sergio Gustavo “Flay” Roldan, the leader of San Martin Tucuman who is about to be prosecuted for the murder of a rival fan, yet was still allowed to board a plane in Buenos Aires because the paperwork of his case was not filed yet. Other Barras deported were three leaders of Huracan and two leaders of Lanus. On Sunday Barrabravas associated with San Lorenzo and Racing were seen at the airport setting off for Africa, while tomorrow member of Boca Juniors “La 12” and core Estudiantes La Plata Barras were set to go.
All in all, it is a phenomenon unique to Argentina. Whatever the world thinks of this, for the Argentine players to have the Barrabravas on hand is like home-cooking. Their presence generates an energy and a confidence that the players thrive on. All Argentines know that many Barras are hard core gangsters, legendary for a violent history, but also the thrilling half of the show. They raise the sensational side of the match up to a spectacular level and for that they are not only tolerated, but often aided and abetted, as is the case now in Africa.