The World Cup, between football and violence

Photo: Gutiérrez/Flickr

When Lionel Messi enters the field in Russia for Argentina, he will be cheered by Barrasbravas from his homeland. Photo: Rodrigo Gutiérrez/Flickr


By Javier Szlifman
When Argentina plays at the 2018 World Cup in Russia they are not alone. A group of ‘Barrasbravas’, as the Argentine ultras are known, are following their team to Russia. The Barrasbravas are not the only fan group with a violent record.

The World Cup is an important event for football players and fans. For the “Barrasbravas”, the organised groups of Argentinean football fans known to expose violent behavior, like the ‘ultras’ or ‘hooligans’, the World Cup is equally important and they will do anything possible to be there. During the qualification, they did their part in helping the Argentina National Team of Lionel Messi.

When competing for the World Cup Qualifications, the Argentinean national team traditionally plays at the River Plate Stadiumin Buenos Aires, which is the largest stadium in the country. In October 2017, with only two days left before the end of the qualification, Argentina had still not secured its ticket to the World Cup. Claudio Tapia, president of the Argentinian Football Association, decided that the decisive match against Peru would be played at the Boca Junior’s stadium, La Bombonera.

Argentina needed a victory to pave its way to the World Cup. To win, the team needed a smaller stadium, a place where the most fanatic football fans' breathswould be felt more intensely – a stadium led by the ‘Barrasbravas’ of Boca. The fan group promised the organisers that there would be songs throughout the match, fireworks, big flags in the grandstand and thousands of small flags to distribute to the rest of the spectators. In return, they received money and tickets to attend the event.

However, this operation was not enough to win. Argentina and Peru drew 0-0. Lionel Messi acknowledged the fans' encouragement:

"Playing at the Boca stadium was an amazing personal experience, despite the result, we were applauded, and it was a beautiful night," he told reporters after the match.

A few days later, three goals by the Barcelona footballer guaranteed Argentina’s participation in the World Cupwith a 3 - 1 victory against Ecuador in Quito. A few weeks later, Boca’s Barrasbravas sent a plate, expressing their gratitude, to Messi.

Barrasbravas at the World Cup
During the World Cup, the Russian organisers will not solely seek to avoid terrorist attacks, such as those that have taken place lately in Saint Petersburg, Surgut and Volvograd. But their efforts are also directed at controlling the most violent football fans.

It is estimated that several dozens of the most violent fans in Argentina are in Russiafor the World Cup. Many of them have been working to get there for a long time.

Last October, a group of Barrasbravas from the Argentinean club Independiente de Avellaneda brought a flag with the words "Russia 2018" during their team’s match at the Copa Sudamericana against Nacional from Paraguay. Pablo Alvarez, the historic leader of this fan group, has been detained since October 2017. He is currently imprisoned while awaiting his conviction for having threatened the then team coach, Arial Holan, to pay $ 50,000 to support the fan group.

During the 1990 World Cup in Milan, Italy, the Barrasbravas of Boca and Independiente fought hard over who should be in control of the Argentinian fans.

In February 2018, seven members of Landscrona, an ultras group supporting Zenit of Saint Petersburg, passed through Buenos Aires and met with Argentinean Barrasbravas of different teams to offer them accommodation and transfers during the 2018 World Cup. Argentinians and Russians have an enemy in common: the English hooligans, with whom both have had clashes in the past.

The Argentinians faced England during the 1986 World Cup in Mexico and during the 1998 World Cup in France. The Russian hooligans were behind a line of serious incidents during the EURO 2012, when they clashed with Polish fans. Because of this incident, Russia received a suspended six-point deduction for the Euro 2016 qualification. The Russian hooligans engaged in similar incidents with violent clashes against the English hooligans at the EURO 2016 in France, where more than 100 people were injured.

In the beginning of 2018, Spartak Moskva ultras were involved in a serious incident in Bilbao, Spain, before a Euro League match against Athlectico Bilbao. A police officer was killed by a flare because of the riots.

FIFA addressed this incident by underlining its confidence in the security devices developed by the Russian authorities to prevent this type of incidents during the 2018 World Cup, such as the creation of the FAN ID, a mandatory document that all participants must bring with them to the stadiums, said a FIFA spokesperson. These measures allow unprecedented control over the fans and a fast identification of those responsible for possible incidents. A law issued by the Russian Congress around one year ago strengthens the punishments against fans that cause incidents during the World Cup. Foreigners might be even deported.

“A successful World Cup and the national image of Russia depend directly on their precise and competent work, "Vladimir Putin told the representatives of the security forces at a meeting of the Russian Ministry of Interior. The Russian Government also asserted that it had prevented a terrorist attack during the Confederations Cup played last year.

Football or violence?
A month prior to the World Cup, the Argentina’s Minister of Security, Patricia Bullrich and the Russian ambassador to the country, Viktor Koronelli, signed a collaboration agreement in Buenos Aires. The Argentine Government gave the Russian authorities information about 3,000 Argentinian fans who are prohibited from entering the local stadiums due to previous acts of violence. Although many of them could travel to Russia, the existence of the FAN ID and the data provided by the Argentinian officials would prevent many of them from accessing the stadiums. These agreements were made with a number of participating countries of the World Cup.

In the first match of Argentina in the World Cup against Iceland, through the control system of the FAN ID, 7 Barrasbravas were prevented from entering the stadium because they were onthe Argentinean list of prohibited fans. The controls on stadium entrance were very strict. Inside the stadium, the more than 20,000 Argentine fans behaved correctly. So far, since the beginning of the World Cup there have been no reports of serious incidents caused byneither Argentine fans nor fans of other countries.

"For some, it will be a football festival, for others it will be a festival of violence,” predicted hooded ‘Denis’, leader of the Russian fan group ‘Orel Butchers’ in "Russia’s Hooligan Army", a recent documentary of the BBC. Hopefully, the main theme of this World Cup will be football and not violence.


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