Raul Sifuentes/CON LatinContent Editorial/Getty Images
By James Young
May 20, 2015

The aphorism “let the punishment fit the crime” is unlikely to be heard much in South American soccer’s corridors of power.

Whether it is the week-in, week-out thuggery of Brazil’s torcidas organizadas and Argentina’s barras bravas or the far too frequent tragedies served up in the Copa Libertadores–which in recent years have included the death of 14-year-old Bolivian fan Kevin Espada, struck by a flare fired by Corinthians fans in Oruro in 2013, and last week’s now notorious PepperGate incident at La Bombonera in Buenos Aires–perhaps the only thing more striking than the violence that scars the game across the continent is the inability of the authorities to do anything about the problem.

Never was that more evident than last weekend, when the (not so) wise men at South American soccer’s governing body CONMEBOL passed judgment on the mayhem that took place during last Thursday’s Boca Juniors vs River Plate Libertadores round-of-16 game, when the visiting River players were attacked with pepper spray by home fans while in the supposed safety of a temporary tunnel to the changing rooms.

Despite rumors that CONMEBOL was ready to throw the book at Boca by banning the club from Libertadores action for a number of years, the punishment when it came was not so much a slap as a light tickle on the wrist, given the anarchic and potentially tragic scenes witnessed at La Bombonera.

Boca was kicked out of this year’s competition (arguably a foregone conclusion, given that the CONMEBOL rulebook seems to call for the opposition to be awarded the game on a 3-0 score line in the event a team, and presumably therefore its fans, interferes with the outcome of a match), ordered to play its next four home CONMEBOL games behind closed doors (as well as having its fans banned from the next four away games in continental competition), and hit with a $200,000 fine.

As far as the Argentinian press was concerned, the punishment was certainly lenient. “Cheap, very cheap,” said the website of sports paper Olé, while La Nación said that “the sanctions weren’t tough.”

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Curiously CONMEBOL itself was tickled pink at what it saw as its newfound rigor. “It’s an undeniably symbolic decision, where a severe punishment has been given to a big club...a message has been sent,” said Caio Rocha, the Brazilian head of the organization’s disciplinary commission–illustrating a rather disconcerting discrepancy between what South American soccer’s panjandrums and the rest of the world consider to be justice.

The plot thickened this week when Spanish newspaper AS claimed that FIFA had wanted Boca banned from continental competitions for five years, but that CONMEBOL, thinking of the loss of profit and prestige of Boca-less future Libertadores tournaments, had opted for a softer penalty–and possibly given up South America’s chance of a confirmed fifth World Cup qualifying place in the process.

Not that experienced South American soccer watchers will raise much of an eyebrow at such shenanigans. For decades CONMEBOL and national federations such as Argentina’s AFA and Brazil’s CBF have proved singularly incapable of tackling the hooligan problem in their regions. Instead of addressing the real causes of the violence, the authorities dish out what can often seem entirely random penalties on clubs–no less than three of Brazil’s 20 Serie A clubs have just begun the new season by playing home fixtures away from their own stadiums, following fan misbehavior of varying degrees of seriousness last season. 

But it is in the Libertadores where the illogical nature of CONMEBOL’s disciplinary policy comes to the forefront. When fans of América invaded the field and attacked the players from Brazilian side São Caetano during the 2004 competition, the organization fined the Mexican side $50,000 and banned forward Cuauhtémoc Blanco, considered responsible for inciting the violence, for a year.

A year later, Boca coach Jorge "Chino" Benítez spat at Chivas Guadalajara player Adolfo Bautista at La Bombonera, and then a fan invaded the pitch and tried to attack the visiting forward. Boca’s punishment that time was the closure of its ground for four games, a three-game suspension for striker Martin Palermo, and a $20,000 fine for coach Benitez.

Perhaps most incongruously of all, following the death of Espada in 2013, Corinthians’ eventual punishment was a $200,000 fine, the closure of the club’s Pacaembu stadium for a single Libertadores game, and a ban on the club’s fans from traveling away in continental tournaments for 18 months. Meanwhile the home team, San José, was fined a paltry $10,000–rather begging the question as to why it seemed to take an attack on players in a high-profile game such as Boca vs. River, rather than the death of a child, for CONMEBOL to decide to “send a message.”

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The recurring nature of such examples shows that the only consistent thing about South American soccer’s governing body’s approach to tackling violence is the repeated failure of its results. At the same time, however, CONMEBOL’s weakness is arguably merely reflecting the culture of legal impunity that is notoriously rife in wider South American society. Earlier this year, Brazil’s Folha de São Paulo newspaper reported that no convictions have been made for the 11 soccer-related murders in the city over the last 10 years (the paper admitted the real number of deaths is likely to be much higher).

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And the problem can rarely have been more neatly illustrated than by the São Paulo judge who released a group of Corinthians fans arrested after a violent invasion of the club’s training ground last year, when staff and players were physically threatened.

“It was nothing more than a protest by loyal fans, and I’d say that it’s the team that should be ashamed, they only wanted to…make the players justify their salaries, and produce some real Brazilian soccer,” trumpeted Gilberto Azevedo Morais Costa.

In addition to the weakness of the game’s governing bodies and the vagaries of the justice system, a third party must shoulder the blame for South America’s ongoing history of soccer violence–the continent’s teams. In both Brazil and Argentina, politically minded club presidents often enlist the manpower of the barras bravas and torcidas organizadas–which can number in the tens of thousands–to help them win elections, both within their clubs and in the wider political scene, currying their favor with free tickets and travel to away games.

At the same time, while club bigwigs are embracing what the Brazilian media often describes as their “promiscuous” relationship with the gangs, there have been a reported 275 soccer-related deaths in the country since 1988. In Argentina, meanwhile, many barras bravas effectively operate as organized crime syndicates, holding the clubs they purport to support to ransom and making money from drug trafficking, ticket scalping, and even, in some cases, payments from the players themselves.

Perhaps just as serious as the links between clubs and the gangs is the moral complicity of many South American club directors and presidents. “If you suffer your people to be ill-educated, and their manners to be corrupted from their infancy, and then punish them for those crimes to which their first education disposed them, what else is to be concluded from this, but that you first make thieves and then punish them,” wrote Thomas More, Henry VIII’s favorite midfield schemer before he fell rather sharply from grace.

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Arguably no one is more responsible for “making thieves” in the South American game than the continent’s clubs, who instead of accepting the sanctions served on them with good grace and working towards resolving the problem, howl in protest at whatever punishments are handed down and seek to escape them by any means necessary, creating a climate of victimization that can only serve to stoke the fires of tribalism and violence.

After Saturday night’s verdict, for example, Boca immediately announced its intention to appeal against its punishment, and had hoped to prevent Thursday’s game between River and Cruzeiro from going ahead.

“Our focus is to overturn the elimination…There are four really heavy punishments. It’s out of proportion,” said the club’s Brazilian lawyer Eduardo Carlezzo.

CONMEBOL’s appeals committee has rejected Boca’s claims, and the club will now go to the South American Sports Arbitration Board, an independent body. A laughing Boca general secretary Cesar Martucci, meanwhile, said that the team had “won one and lost one” in being kicked out of the competition but at the same time avoiding a more serious punishment, while striker Dani Osvaldo tweeted that his nephew’s dreams had “been destroyed by five fat suits” (and not, presumably, by some of his club’s fans).

Players from Bolivian club San Jose carry a banner in remembrance of Kevin Espada, a fan who was killed by a thrown flare in a match against Brazil's Corinthians.
Nelson Almeida/AFP/Getty Images

Nor is Boca alone in sending a toxic “it’s us against the world, boys” message to elements of their support who are both already seething with a sense of injustice and deeply emerged in the culture of violence that surrounds them. “Arresting 12 innocent people was a worse crime than the other,” said Corinthians president Mario Gobbi last year, drawing a remarkable comparison between Espada's death and the group of fans accused of his murder, who were imprisoned for five months in Bolivia before being subsequently released.

Mr. Gobbi’s definition of innocent may require work–following their release, two of said fans were involved in a major brawl with Vasco da Gama supporters at the Mane Garrincha World Cup stadium in Brasilia, another was injured in a shootout with police, and a fourth was killed in the recent massacre of eight fans, seemingly related to a drug trafficking feud, at a Corinthians torcida organizada clubhouse.

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The long list of the dubious moral messages sent by South American clubs goes on. After Santos goalkeeper Aranha was racially abused by a group of Grêmio fans at a Copa do Brasil game in August, the main concern of the club’s directors was apparently not how to prevent such incidents from happening again, but to protest against their punishment (elimination from the tournament and a fine) and to humiliate the victim.

“Do you want to know why the incident wasn’t in the referee’s report? Because it didn’t happen. It was just Aranha making a scene,” said one director, Adalberto Preis.

Growled former club president Luiz Carlos Silveira Martins: “Why don’t we investigate Aranha’s past to see what’s there. This little saint, this poor baby that he is …Aranha didn’t let the game flow. He interrupted the game the whole time. Then he hears a little shout, poor thing … and he goes and puts on this theater show.”

And in Belo Horizonte, before last season’s Copa do Brasil final between city rivals Atlético Mineiro and Cruzeiro, the presidents of both clubs engaged in an unseemly row over the ticketing allocations for visiting fans.

“He’s a liar, and out of control,” snarled Atlético chairman Alexandre Kalil of his opposite number, in a city where a Cruzeiro fan was beaten to death by members of Atlético’s Galoucura organizada in 2010.

On each occasion, the example given by the clubs to their supporters, whether law abiding fans or hooligans, was clear. Forget Aranha, or Espada, or the River Plate players–we’re the real victims here, “they” are out to get us, and that’s all that matters. In doing so clubs arguably perpetuate the culture of enmity, tribalism and vicious rivalry that pervade the South American game and that play an integral role in perpetuating the violence.

River Plate players shield themselves with police while under assault from Boca Juniors fans.
Juan Mabromata/AFP/Getty Images

Still, if you look hard enough, a few pale green shoots of hope have begun to emerge in this barren landscape. A number of Boca fan groups made public apologies to River Plate and its players after PepperGate, with one image circulated on social media bearing the legend “on May 14th we were an international embarrassment.” At a number of games in Brazil in recent months, ordinary fans, fed up with the violence and the ensuing penalties served on their clubs, have booed their own torcidas organizadas.

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And while there does not seem to have been much progress made in terms of security checks on the way into grounds, clubs are at least getting better at identifying trouble makers and handing them over to the police, whether through TV footage or internal security cameras–after being identified, Adrian Napolitano, the Boca fan responsible for the pepper spray attack, said that he was surprised that he was filmed.

The roots of South America’s hooligan problem are many and complex, and often linked to the problems of the continent’s wider society, such as the proliferation of urban violence and social inequality. A great many of those involved in soccer violence, for example, most notably in Brazil, come from desperately poor neighborhoods where violence, and confrontation with the police, is commonplace. In such a context, many observers have argued that it is unreasonable to expect the problems of violent societies such as Brazil, where there were over 64,000 murders in 2012, to miraculously stop at the gates to a soccer stadium.

Yet at the same time the parties involved in the seemingly endless cycle of thuggery – which include gang leaders who often claim (honestly or not) to be opposed to the violence while doing nothing to stamp it out, the weakness of the game’s governing bodies, and the impunity and sluggishness of local justice systems – can surely do more to clean up South American soccer grounds.

Addressing the moral vacuum at the heart of so many of the region’s clubs would be as good a place to start as any. 

James Young is a Brazil-based contributor to SI.com. He can be followed on Twitter @seeadarkness.

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