Friday, October 12, 2012

Soccer Mafias: Barras Bravas of Buenos Aires

Many times I’ve mentioned that I find soccer, as a spectator sport, an exercise in tedium, best exemplified by the classic Buenos Aires Herald headline “Another Boring 0-0 Tie.” That puts me at odds with my nephews, who keep threatening to take me to a match, but so far I’ve successfully resisted.
I feel differently, though, about soccer as a social and cultural phenomenon. I’ve enjoyed the Museo de la Pasión Boquense, which extolls the virtues of the Boca Juniors franchise, but that’s largely because of the museum’s success in portraying the barrio’s intense attachment to the team. Several times I’ve been in the neighborhood on game days, when blue and gold fashion statements (see the above photograph) reach saturation levels.

That said, I’m not sorry to have avoided the experience of my friend Patrick Symmes who, in last month’s Outside Magazine, waded into the middle of the barras bravas, the most unsavory aspect of Argentine soccer. Their closest English-language counterpart would be Britain’s soccer hooligans, but the barras go far beyond anything ever seen in the UK: in Patrick’s words, “What Argentina really excels at is not so much the play of soccer as the bloodsucking financial exploitation and mob atmosphere that accompanies it.”
The worst of the bunch is probably Boca’s “La Doce,” roughly translatable as the “twelfth man” in the stands. They intimidate other fans, players, the police and even management – controlling concessions and parking around La Bombonera (the team’s “Chocolate Box” stadium whose murals, one of which is pictured above, depict its fans and other neighborhood sights).

Sometimes, rival factions of barras of the same team will assault each other, and they have even resorted to homicide. The insecurity has also affected the quality of play, as the best Argentine athletes often prefer to play in Europe, where they feel more secure.

The barras’ names are often dead giveaways, so to speak. Estudiantes de La Plata’s is known as the Pincharratas (Ratstabbers), while River Plate’s are Los Borrachos del Tablón (Drunkards of the Stands) and Vélez Sarsfield’s is La Pandilla (The Gang). These are not people most of us would invite to dinner and, in Patrick’s article, you can sense the menace that he and his Italian photographer – who spent nearly four years in Afghanistan – endured to get the story. It’s gripping reading, and I’m glad they did it instead of me.

The barras are not exclusive to Argentina. Once, in the Santiago Metro, I found myself surrounded by partisans of Colo Colo, whose Garra Blanca (White Claw) is probably Chile’s highest profile barra. En route to a match at the national stadium, they pogoed so energetically that I briefly feared they might derail the car. Still, while it was rowdy and unpleasant, I never felt personally threatened. It was nowhere remotely close to the organized thuggery that Patrick portrays in Argentine soccer.

App News: Argentina Travel Adventures is an Android!
Until now, my Argentina Travel Adventures app has only been available for the iPhone, iPad Touch, and iPad, as the upper-right advertisement indicates. A few days ago, though, ATA went live for Android-based phone and tablets. At only US$2.99, it’s a bargain for planning for your trip to Buenos Aires and beyond.

In related news, my Chile Travel Adventures app should be released soon for both iTunes and Android.

Tango by the River
As announced recently, there’s been a postponement of my digital slide lecture on Buenos Aires at Tango by the River in Sacramento, which will now take place Friday, October 26th, at 6 p.m. The date’s getting close, though – just a shade over two weeks.
Limited to a maximum of 50 people, the event will also include tango performances; admission costs $10 at the door, or $8 in advance. I have spoken here several times before, and we always sell out, so plan in advance. Signed copies of my Moon Handbooks on Argentina, Buenos Aires, Chile and Patagonia will be available at discount prices.

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