Co-founder and president of the Salvemos al Fútbol NGO, Mariano Bergés, on hooligan violence, the barra bravas and the murky relationship between politics and football in Argentina.
I n 2006, Mariano Bergés was contacted by a director of the Villa Crespobased Club Atlético Atlanta. Her name was Mónica Nizzardo and she was one of the very first female directors of a club in Argentine football. She told Bergés she was fed up with the violence perpetrated by some supporters of her club. And she wanted to do something about it.
Bergés, who recently retired from his career as a criminal judge and had worked on several cases involving footballrelated violence, listened to the proposal and agreed to work with her. Together they founded an NGO dedicated to tackling the violence carried out by the barra bravas, Argentina’s infamous football hooligans.
Over a decade on, Salvemos al Fútbol is the primary orga nisation combating football violence in Argentina. Its mission is to assist victims and their families, to document and analyse data on violent incidents and promote sustainable solutions to violence in football.
Considering the history of Argentine football, this is a daunting task. According to the NGO’s running tally of footballrelated deaths in Argentina, there have been 332 fatally violent incidents since 1922. The most recent victim was Exequiel Neris, a 21-year-old River Plate fan who was murdered by a group of young Boca fans on his way home from celebrations marking the Millo’s Copa Libertadores win last year over their arch-rivals.
It was thanks to that infamous clash – “the final to end all finals” as it was billed – that violence in Argentine football made headlines across the world. Ahead of the second leg, Boca’s team bus was attacked by a group of River fans. The images quickly spread across the world.
Fears grew. Security concerns were so great that the second leg, due to be played in River’s Monumental stadium, was famously moved to Madrid – the first time the Libertadores final has been held outside of the Americas.
It was a stark admission, from both the government and the game’s authorities in Argentina, that they could not guarantee the safety of spectaAP/ERALDO PERES tors, officials and players.
Today, on the eve of a new Superliga season, Argentina seems no closer to solving the endemic problem of footballrelated violence, despite congressional efforts last year to pass a new ‘Barra Bravas law’ to clamp down on the issue.
For Bergés, however, the complexity of violence in local football means Argentina must adopt a long-term plan if it is to truly tackle the problem. Sceptical of the efforts to tackle the problem via legislation alone, he told the Times in an interview that the issue will only be overcome by true socio-cultural change.
How did you become president of Salvemos al Fútbol and what is your relationship to the subject of violence in football?
For 11 years I was a criminal judge and in my work I had the opportunity to hear some cases that involved barra bravas, and we completed investigations that revealed some schemes on the part of barras from Boca and Chacarita and other clubs. When I resigned from public office in 2006, I made contact with Mónica Nizzardo, who had committed to fighting barra brava violence in her own club. First we made a web page and then in 2008 we founded a civil association. She served as the first president and I was the secretary general. Five or six years later I took over as president.
What are the main things that Salvemos al Fútbol are doing to combat the problem of violence in football?
The purpose of the organisation is to combat violence in football in all of its manifestations. Violence in football does not only manifest as physical violence. There is also economic violence. There is not only violence amongst barra bravas but also in the use of the police, in the management by the State, among those charged with prevention, and in the Judiciary as well. From this premise, that violence does not come only from barra bravas, we have worked to establish courses, formalise the process of filing criminal complaints, a physical presence in certain places and especially to provide support to the victims, or their families.
Could you elaborate a bit on this idea of “economic violence?”
What we think is that Argentine society and the Argentine State in general reduce the question of violence in football to the barra bravas; mistakenly think that if they end that violence, all violence in football will cease to exist. They think the best way to do that is by reprimanding those violent groups.
What is rarely mentioned is that the violence does not originate from the ‘pure violence’ carried out by some of the barra bravas but rather from a very particular relationship that the club has with fans, the relationship football clubs have with the Argentine Football Association [AFA], the relationships football clubs have with the police and, perhaps the most important, the relationship clubs have with politics.
This is one of the things that differentiates football violence in Argentina with other countries. In Brazil, for example, there is also certainly a lot of violence in football. But there is not as much of a link between the clubs, the violent actors and politics.
In Argentina I can name many people who are in politics who were also involved with clubs. For example, President Mauricio Macri many years ago was the president of Boca [Juniors]. Today the president is [Daniel] Angelici, who also has connections to the government. Hugo Moyano, who is the president of Independiente is a union leader and is very powerful and his son is [Facundo Moyano] is a leader of the union of toll workers. [Luis] Barrionuevo, a former senator and union leader was also a president [of Chacarita Juniors] – I could go on.
There are many many people who have run football clubs who have attained national political power in Argentina. So it is not enough to simply blame the barra bravas because often they have links to a club’s leadership who are often politicians. So when I say that the violence is also economic, I mean that there are many different interests at work.
Do you think that the situation is improving or getting worse?
There have been some measures taken by this government but the root issue, which is more or less cultural, has not changed. This government, and all other governments, have made the mistake of thinking that by putting into place something called “The Barra Bravas Law” that things will get better. But this doesn’t happen. What has happened in this government is that they’ve wanted to apply ‘make-up’ of sorts to the problem. They made something called the Tribuna Segura [Fan ID scheme brought in by the Security Ministry]. The same thing happened in Buenos Aires Province with something called the APreViDe, which is an agency that tries to prevent violence in sports.
But as for the question, in the previous government under security minister Nilda Garré, the first security protocols for police began to be put in place.
The main problem regarding police is that right now it is impossible for the police to require a club to pay for a certain amount of extra police officers to work during a match. Never in Argentina has there been a way for the police to [require that]. We at Salvemos al Fútbol have been advocating, relatively successfully, for provincial police departments to be able to do this.
Are these measures that you’ve mentioned included in the legislation that was approved in the Chamber of Deputies and do you think that law could have a real impact?
In 2015, presidential candidate Daniel Scioli proposed a law. Nothing became of it. Now the current government is t r y i n g to pass a law of this type. And I would tell you that it threatens very basic constitutional principles because it applies a principle called the “principle of danger,” which would be saying that because certain people make up a group and that this group is violent, they are therefore barra bravas and can be detained and judged forthwith.
The question we always ask is ‘Who says this group is violent?’ Usually it is the police. Or sometimes it is the president of club because sometimes there will be more than one group of barras and the president will decide to align with one and say that the others are violent. So that has to do with the legislation.
In Argentina we have the custom, especially with security matters, of passing a few more laws and thinking that the problem will be solved but that never happens. It is like the death penalty in the United States. People think that if they have the death penalty there will be fewer crimes and that has not happened either. So this is really a socio-cultural question that we have to tackle from another angle. That’s more difficult. We in Argentina have this mania of wanting things to be solved in just a couple years, even if they are part of a culture that has existed for many more years. The truth is there is a lot of work left to do.