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Where soccer is dangerous business

Soccer gangs wield power — and cause violence — in Argentina.

The government of Argentina has recently taken new steps to curb violence in stadiums. At the end of March, the Argentine Football Association signed an agreement to give the state more power to deny admission to violent offenders. And they’ve partnered with the National Technological University to design a computerized ticketing and entrance system to help enforcement.

“Today there are laws in Argentina to prohibit the entrance of anyone who has committed a violent act. They’re all there, they exist,” said Jorge Fraga, the project's director. “The question is in the execution.” By creating a centralized database linking tickets with buyers’ personal data, authorities hope to weed out barra brava members and also halt their major racket, the re-sale of tickets.

But networking technology might not be enough to keep the barra bravas out — they’re too well connected on the inside. Their access is known to go beyond team directors, all the way to the top of Argentina’s political landscape. In the phrase of Leon Arslanian, former security minister of Buenos Aires province, “Barras bravas are the jacks-of-all-trades of the powers that be.” Many in barra bravas have held salaried government positions — one famous example was a security guard in the National Congress — and their visibility makes the gangs ideal forces for turning out votes or discouraging rivals.

Even the most jaded observers were surprised recently by a fairly blatant quid pro quo, when both sides at a highly anticipated “super-classic” match in Buenos Aires unfurled ostensibly pro-government banners (or rather, banners opposing a major company at odds with the government). Each barra was reportedly paid 100,000 pesos (about $27,000) for the signs, which, according to local newspapers, were agreed upon by members of the ruling administration and top brass of the barra bravas.

This is the kind of overwhelming power that has made Fabiana Rubeo curtail her efforts to civilize the barra bravas since the Wall Street Journal touted her as Argentine soccer’s “Ms. Manners” last September. “If a team director comes and says to the barras, ‘Go pressure that player so he gets lost,’ that’s $20,000 dollars,” Rubeo says. “I can’t compete with that.”

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