Police confronting Boca Juniors fans in Buenos Aires' Plaza de la República (photo via Hinchadas de Futbol Facebook)
Good news for any England fans travelling to Brazil for the World Cup: a mob of Argentine ultras are going too, and they're hell-bent on revenge for the Falklands War.
Heading up the horde is a man named Pablo Alvarez, also known as "Beboté" or "Big Baby". "Football related violence is an English tradition so come to Brazil and we will see what happens," Beboté said when I called him up for a chat. "Argentines remember – we never forget nor forgive.” He then abruptly hung up, but it appears memories of the 1982 conflict are still fresh in Argentine minds. Beboté is baying for English blood, and so are his loyal following – notorious hooligan slum-gangs known as barras bravas.
A total of 649 Argentines lost their lives during the Falklands War. In a morbid coincidence, the number of footsoldiers Beboté claims to be leading to Brazil is 650. Together, they form the Hinchadas Unidas Argentinas, or United Supporters Union of Argentina – over 30 different factions of barras bravas from the country’s football leagues. Each firm thrives on violence and operates with mafia-like efficiency, often controlling domestic clubs’ finances and taking cuts from transfer fees, player wages and ticket rackets.
Boca Juniors fans (photo via Hinchadas de Futbol Facebook)
Both British and Brazilian police are losing sleep over the possibility of bloodshed caused by Falklands-fuelled patriotism. Even though many of these diehard fans wouldn't have been born in 1982, the wounds of the war are yet to heal in Argentine society, and the barras bravas are keen to seize the opportunity to gain some international notoriety.
"I still think this could generate some issues for us," said Deputy Chief Constable Andy Holt, at a briefing in London three weeks prior to Thursday's World Cup opener in São Paulo. "Certainly it was a concern raised to us by the Brazilian authorities when we were out there... given the shared history, [it] wouldn't be a confrontation we would welcome... We will do all we can to avoid it."
The police might have a tough time on their hands, given that the barras bravas are not easy to track down, whether it's cops or journalists who are looking for them. Often, they demand large sums of money before they even talk to reporters – Beboté only agreed to speak to me in order to request a fee of $2,000 (£1,200) to divulge any kind of opinion at all. However, a mention of the Falklands conflict hit a nerve and his tongue slipped.
Fellow barra brava Hernan Palavecino, an Atlético Independiente fan who's travelling to Brazil, also implied conflict was on the cards during a separate and equally brief conversation.
“What do you think?" he said. "English fans in Brazil will be in danger."
Supporters of Argentine second division outfit Chacarita Juniors (photo via Barras Bravas de Argentina Facebook)
There is some hope for those England fans who are not hoping to get their heads caved in when they fly out to Brazil. A temporary court injunction blocking the exchange of personal data between Argentina and Brazil was previously working to aid those with a known history of hooliganism. However, this injunction has now been lifted and the identities of the 650 Brazil-bound barras bravas revealed to Brazilian police and Interpol. Acting for the group of ultras headed for the World Cup is lawyer Débora Hambo, who confirms she is representing a number of individuals with a history of aggression.
“We are yet to see how the Brazilian police will act but they will definitely try to prevent Argentine supporters from entering the country," she said. "I need to know how many of my clients are on the list so I can warn them if they are likely to have trouble crossing the border."
During the World Cup in South Africa in 2010, 30 Argentine supporters who were considered dangerous were turned back at airports or deported shortly after arrival, as Argentine authorities passed on intelligence about potential troublemakers. Brazilian police have warned they will be closely monitoring the shared border between the two countries in a bid to minimise violence.
The United Supporters Union of Argentina (photo via Hinchadas Unidas ArgentinasFacebook)
Gustavo Grabia, an Argentine journalist who has spent years infiltrating the underworld of barras bravas, explains how each supporter division is a tightly run and organised unit headed up by a respected leader. Alvarez is no mug. “Beboté is the most intelligent of the hooligans,” he said. “He enjoys relationships with both the police and politicians and knows how to handle power.”
Grabia’s compatriot Pablo Corrazza – presenter of the Código de Barras radio show, which focuses on fan warfare in Argentina’s Primera División – is sure England’s travelling support are headed for a bust up. “I think the English are in danger, just as other fans from other countries will be,” he said. Fifteen football-related deaths occurred during Primera División matches in 2013, according to the NGO Save Football (Salvemos al Fútbol). Barras bravas have been blamed for at least 120 football-related fatalities in Argentina in the past 20 years. As a result, the country’s football association banned all away supporters from attending games in the Buenos Aires province.
The trigger was the death of a Club Atlético Lanús fan following a bloody clash outside Club Estudiantes’ stadium in La Plata, 36 miles south of Buenos Aires. Thirty-eight-year-old Daniel Jerez failed to recover from copping a rubber bullet in the chest, fired point blank from a policeman’s rifle. News broke and the match was suspended at half time.
The chances of England playing Argentina during the World Cup are relatively slim, considering Roy Hodgson’s men will probably have to battle past Spain or even Brazil if they manage to emerge from their respective group, which contains Italy and Uruguay. It may turn out that Wayne Rooney missing a sitter, a Joe Hart fumble, or another depressing penalty shoot-out could lead us away from a drunken Falklands re-enactment – as could Brazil's militant police, or the fact that it could all just be hot air from the Argentines.
But there is form here. England supporters chucked bottles and stones at Argentine fans after the match at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico before a police charge broke the battle up. Diego Maradona, who scored the infamous "Hand of God" goal, wrote in his autobiography of Argentina's 2-1 victory, "it was as if we had beaten a country, not just a football team... Although we had said before the game that football had nothing to do with the Malvinas war, we knew they had killed a lot of Argentine boys there, killed them like little birds. And this was revenge."
Boca Juniors fans (Photo via Hinchidas de Futbol Facebook)
The outlook for England supporters isn't made any better by the news that the barras bravas have apparently formed alliances with Brazilian ultras in a bid to wreak further havoc during the tournament. It's rumoured that Mafia Azul, one of Brazil’s most feared groups, has hired a ranch outside the city of Belo Horizonte to house a selection of their Argentine counterparts. Belo Horizonte, located in the southeastern region of the country, is where the Argentine national side will be based during the World Cup, as well as hosting England and Argentina group games.
English fans should be on the look out for more than just the 650 ultras. “It must be remembered that it is not only the barras bravas who might cause trouble – normal Argentine supporters based in Porto Alegre could also be a risk,” Gustavo Grabia told me. There are expected to be about 11,000 Argentinians in Brazil, compared to about 7,500 England fans.
Authorities will be hoping to that the action in the stands and outside stadiums doesn’t eclipse what happens on the pitch. That said, the Argentines seem determined to indulge in the kind of baiting that would surely enrage anyone with a Three Lions tattoo, unveiling a banner that read, "Las Malvinas Son Argentinas" ("The Falklands Are Argentine") before their friendly with Slovenia. If Argentina and England do meet, it might be remembered not for a goal scored by the Hand of God, but the angry fists of drunken hooligans.
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