Boca Eliminated From Copa Sudamericana As War Erupts Among Its Barra Bravas

Boca’s problems continued to mount after being held to a scoreless draw by a 10-man Independiente last night in Buenos Aires. Already out of the Copa Libertadores and unimpressive at the start of the new domestic season, the result eliminated Boca from the Copa Sudamericana and left the club in search of a new identity after Roman Riquelme’s controversial departure. Riquelme announced that he was leaving the club immediately after the Copa Libertadores loss to Corinthians in June, with no particular destination, after a well documented, lengthy, mutual resentment with Boca’s coach Julio Falcioni.

To make matters worse, the civil war between Boca’s two factions of supporters, one led by current leader Mauro Martin (right) and the other led by former leader Rafa Di Zeo (left), blew up this week-end on a highway in the Santa Fe province, about 150 miles away from Buenos Aires. An ambush-style highway attack by Di Zeo’s men left Martin and three of his top associates hospitalized with gunshot wounds, with several others injured. Amazingly, despite a heavy police presence on the scene, on three arrests were made. Retaliation is sure to follow, raising the horrible prospect that what took place among River supporters a few years ago is now about to happen at Boca.

It is hard to imagine how the players can maintain focus and their spirits up in this bleak environment. Boca is left to concentrate on its fight for the domestic title, but this basic objective will be difficult to achieve in the backdrop of the violence. What is the war about? Turf, money, power, control of game day related commerce around the stadium, player transfers – hard to believe, but in Argentina that’s how it is. The same gangs, or barras, that provide the most exhilarating stadium atmosphere, a spectacle unlike anything else in the world, are, in fact, organized criminal enterprises that operate outside of legal parameters with the acquiescence of club bosses and politicians. Under a long standing understanding, the barras receive not only free access to any stadium where the team plays, but also gear, travel money, game-day expenses, even pay-offs to the top barras from club related revenue. The club bosses fear, despise and need the barras at the same time.

Di Zeo was leader of the Boca barras for a long time and became a public figure, even giving occasional interviews, until he was convicted for his role in a violent clash between Boca and Chacarita supporters five years ago. While he was in prison, Boca’s barra group called La Doce suffered a brief vacuum of power, one that was quickly filled by Di Zeo’s former deputy, Mauro Martin. When Di Zeo came out of jail, he tried to reclaim his empire, but Martin was firmly entrenched. For the past few months, Di Zeo took his followers to the opposite end of Boca’s stadium and the factions exchanged life threatening chants throughout Boca home matches. Until this weekend that is, when words became deeds.

At last, the Argentine government appears to be making a serious effort to squeeze the violence and the criminality out of Argentine football. Last week the tax authorities banned 146 agents, suspended 30 players transferred improperly this past summer and targeted widespread tax evasion and money laundering operations, while the government is taking stronger measures to fight hooliganism. But this effort will only be successful if enough club bosses cooperate. Independiente, a huge club dealing with its own crisis on the field, is experiencing similar tension off the field after the club’s new President revoked the barras’ free access to the games and other standard perks from the past. After losing to its eternal rival Racing ten days ago, the barras attacked and ransacked the club’s headquarters. Yet even as Independiente’s president was fighting with his club’s barras, Boca’s president was defending Martin and Di Zeo as rightful attendees at last night’s match. Finally, and only after the week-end shoot-out, Boca provided the police with the names of 67 known barras who are now blacklisted.

The culture of violence is currently inseparable from Argentine football. Just in recent days two brothers and their respective factions engaged in a bloody shoot-out against each other! while vying for the barra leadership of second division club Deportivo Merlo. That barra control transcends blood ties is simply stunning. Even when there is peace, it is always fragile. The tension is always palpable, the violence can erupt anywhere, at any time. Ultimately it is a cultural situation rooted deeply in socio-economic conditions. Changing this culture and its underlying causes is a monumental undertaking for Argentina.