The term ‘football hooligans’ has a very different meaning in Argentina. On match day in England it tends to mean a firm of frustrated ‘fans’ encamped in a pub somewhere – remote from their ground because they are banned from attending. With no chance of supporting their team they will try to arrange to meet the visiting team’s firm somewhere for a bust up. Not so in Argentina, here to all intense and purposes the hooligans own and control the football ground. They control the parking outside the ground, they take a cut of the food and drink sales inside, they steward sections of terracing and even chose the songs that home supporters sing and when they are sung. It’s not far of being a mafia operation really.
So why do the football clubs allow this? Apparently it’s simple. If your fans are managing the ground then as the Club you don’t have to pay the police to do it. In turn I was told that the Argentine Government are quietly happy to let the Clubs do this so they don’t have to employ police to do it! I guess it’s a “big society” thing at work!
In Argentina, football is all about atmosphere… and lots of it. It’s clear to see the Argentines absolutely love their football, it’s ingrained in them. It’s a shame then that the standard of football isn’t better, and this is something the locals admit. I went to a game between Velez and River Plate, two of the biggest sides in the country and it was played at a standard comparable to the lower end of the English Championship – like watching Derby County then really :-). The only class act on the pitch was River’s 19 year old right back who is apparently on the plane to Barcelona next year. And there in lies the problem. If you are a top Argentine footballer you play in Europe or Mexico because the money is ten’s of times better there. But that doesn’t stop the atmosphere…. Far from it!
Before the game I was told the ground would be 60% full, it was barely that a kick off but this didn’t stop the theatre of the event. Away to my left was the home terrace, all traditional standing space and not a steward or policeman in sight. The congregation grew slowly before the game although it seemed that no one wanted to occupy the elevated space in the terrace directly behind the goal, the best view of the game – it seemed strange. However it became clear that this was the space reserved for the Hooligans who arrived to occupy centre stage on the terrace minutes before the start of the game. They then began to conduct proceedings with real gusto.
I genuinely have never seen anything like it at a football ground – and I’ve been to a few. The home terrace controlled by the clubs hooligans was immensely loud and didn’t stop singing from before the first whistle until 5 minutes after the match ended. It was constant orchestrated noise and energy. And it wasn’t like they had anything to shout about either, the game was a drab no score draw. All this as well without any away fans. Due to some bother in the last few seasons visiting fans are band from attending away fixtures. This is apparently a temporary thing and will be reconsidered at the end of this season. With two sets of fans going at it it must be unreal!
The hooligans seemed to pay little attention on the game, instead their full efforts were on rallying the home terrace, provoking the crowd and asserting its authority on the attendees. There was a brass band, ticker tape everywhere, shirts and scarves swing over heads, banners, flags and a system of parallel ropes rigged up. These were tied to the security fence at the front of the terrace and then ran up the terrace to hooligans stood perilously on crowd barriers towards the top of the stand. The ropes were used to almost whip the crowd into a frenzy of noise and movement. Parts of the terrace resembled a scene from the front of a rock concert audience or something, a mosh pit of people bouncing, pushing and jumping into and off each other. But it was definitely well planned, there seemed to be defined roles for the hooligans stoking the action. There were even people stood balancing on the back wall of the stand, shirts off, rotating them above their heads, if they had slipped they would have fallen to their death! But football here seems to matter that much.
All this for a no score draw, god knows what would have happened if they had got a winner!