Argentina is, undoubtedly, a football-mad country. Embedded in the blood of just about every Argentine is a genuine passion for the sport with over 90% of the population declaring their allegiance to both their local and international teams. Introduced in the late 19th century and popularised with the establishment of the national league in 1891, football remains the country’s national sport with Argentina being one of only 7 other countries to win the World Cup.
Renowned for its enthusiastic followers, elaborate stadium antics and ingenious team anthems, Argentina is one of the best places in the world to experience the real essence of football fantatisicm. However, despite the affection and admiration given to the country’s many football elites, what happens when things get a little too heated? And, is there such a thing as obsessive passion in football?
The reason I initially chose to write this post was because I felt it was imperative for me to express my disappointment regarding Argentina’s recent World Cup Qualifying defeat against Ecuador. Yet, after reading various articles about the nature of football in South America, I decided to take another path and instead learn about the anthropological side of our beloved national sport. This sparked a lot of personal curiosity about the ways in which fans of the sport can become so emotionally intertwined with the players, coaches and events occuring in the football culture.
It seems, when Argentina looses (as they did this week) the fans feel as if there has also been a viscious and heartless attack on their person. It is undoubtedly disappointing when your favourite team loses an important match, but when a person is so intrinsically involved in a sport, it aches. After Argentina’s loss to Ecuador, the national pride of the country was tattered if not for the sole reason that their World Cup Qualifying spot could be under serious threat. If Argentina don’t make the 2010 World Cup, well, who knows how the country might react!
What this thought led me to analyse was the nature of football fanaticism. Before relating this term to the football culture in Argentina, I looked up various definitions and interpretations of the word. Theoretically, fans are recognised as a ‘devotee or enthusiastic follower of a specified amusement’ and as an ‘obsessed’ individual with an intense interest in a certain team, celebrity, band or similar. These definitions are derived from the concept of fanaticism and suggest that to be a fan there must be significant interest in a culture. The complications of these definitions are that they presume an almost deviant way of looking at fan cultures and are usually based on generalisations and stereotypes. However, despite these seemingly generalised definitions, previous ways of defining fan cultures (such as the ‘hooligan’ or ‘obsessed loner’ ) have virtually disappeared and fan culture is being recognised as an identity and place of personal belonging rather than a social category or label.
In football, fandom becomes an crucial aspect of the culture because it contributes to its strong and continued existence. However, despite its clearly positive side, when does ‘fandom’ become a negative and often serious issue?
Unfortunately, despite Argentina’s booming reputation as a football loving nation, there are some ugly sides to the national culture. On April 8th, 2008 the Minister of Security and Justice in Argentina banned River Plate fans from the terraces of the Monumental Stadium for two home fixtures, in response to violent clashes which occurred in the Barra Bravas two weeks beforehand. A few months later the same situation occurred when Boca Juniors fans were banned from their stadium, and a year later River Plate fans were again banned from their stadium after more violent clashes in the Barra Bravas.
In an book titled Football, Violence and Social Identity (edited by Richard Giulianotti, Norman Bonney and Mike Hepworth), fanaticism is looked at under a very serious, critical light. Quoted in the book is Argentine footballer Roberto Perfumo who attempts to explain why these incidents are so recurrent:
“Football is, in and of itself, a violent game,” he said.
“The fans go crazy because the conditions are ripe for it and the possibilities for craziness are there.”
(Perfumo cited in Giulianotti et al. 1994: 57).
According to Perfumo and many other social commentators, there is a belief that the violent nature of football is a reflection of the political and social violence that devastated Argentina since the 1966 military coup. Put quite simply, Argentines have become somewhat desensitised to violence and, as a result, violence has presented itself in sport. Whatever the cause, it seems absurd for a sport like football to be continuously marred by violent and overly-obsessive fans whose purposes for attending matches is to cause trouble.
In the country’s defence, it is not just Argentina that experiences fan violence at their sporting events. Violence in sport, whether it’s among participants or spectators, remains a central issue in local, national and international sport. In Australia, the National Rugby League Board recently placed a life ban on Cantebury Bulldogs fans after violent incidents broke out during one of their matches. And in England the term “football hooliganism” began to be associated with various football clubs and fanatics during the 1960s when violence was a recurring issue during various Premier League matches. These examples demonstrate that it’s not just Argentina that experiences these problems.
Having taken a critical look at the nature of the football culture in Argentina, it is evident that violence by fans introduces an element of disorder and discontinuity in what is, by definition, a public event designed to demonstrate the benefits of peaceful competition. As Archetti & Romero explain “winning a football game should have nothing to do with the deliberate use of physical force with intent to injure, wound or destroy the adversary. Instead, success should be associated with individual mastery of technique and the tactical ability of the team” (cited in Giulianotti et al 1994: 37).
While physical force is an important elemtent in the social universe of football, it refers to physical stamina and the ability to push the body to its limits. Violence on behalf of fans therefore threatens the underlying values of not just football, but all sporting events and casts an undoubtedly dark shadow on what is a celebration of skill, talent and social unity.