Brazil Tries to Kick Soccer Violence

Tactics include player appeals and an in-stadium juvenile court

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

THE world's premier soccer power may have trouble this season luring fans to fill its stadiums.

With the beginning of the new soccer season this month, team owners are concerned about a return of last year's fan violence, which ended in six deaths and hundreds of injuries and kept rooters away in record numbers.

Even after Brazil's unprecedented fourth World Cup victory in July, attendance sank and team owners lost millions in revenue. According to a November poll, 85 percent of those queried were afraid to go to a stadium because of violence.

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Brazilian soccer fans are attacking each other with alarming regularity, using weapons ranging from rocks and brass knuckles to guns and homemade grenades fashioned from billiard balls.

''Soccer has gone from a form of entertainment to a form of war,'' says Isaias Ambrosio, a Maracana stadium employee for 44 years. The stadium, with a capacity of 140,000, averaged only 10,397 fans a game for the 1994 national championship playoffs, which generally draw huge crowds. Last Oct. 27, only 641 fans showed up, the lowest turnout since the stadium opened in 1950.

''Violence is destroying Brazilian football,'' said an editorial in the Rio daily, Jornal do Brasil. ''If we don't act quickly, the empty stadiums will bankrupt Brazilian soccer.''

Team owners and state officials are trying: Star players appeal for an end to fan violence on TV; metal detectors are at the gates; video crews film rooter sections to identify troublemakers; and police escort rooting sections to and from their seats. Sao Paulo State Attorney General Mauro Jose de Almeida has warned that fans who carry weapons and circulate in groups of more than four will be tried for ''organizing a criminal gang,'' punishable by two to six years in prison.

In Rio, Maracana officials have draped a banner under the scoreboard that reads ''Sports Is Life, Not Violence'' and have inaugurated the nation's first in-stadium juvenile court, where lawyers and judges can immediately try minors who have been arrested. Maracana also broke a 40-year tradition last November by closing all 18 fan-club offices inside the stadium. The rooms had been used to store weapons, according to stadium officials.

Further, team owners hope to end violence by bringing back Brazil's greatest stars from Europe. In January, Rio's Flamengo team purchased the contract of World Cup hero Romario de Souza Faria from Barcelona, Spain, for $5 million. Romario, as he is known, was recently voted the world's greatest player by the international soccer federation.

At the opening of the new Rio season Feb. 12 at Maracana stadium, more than 100,000 fans came out to see Romario. There was no serious violence inside the stadium, though there was a drive-by shooting outside it in which one man was injured.

''Romario's return means the rebirth of Brazilian soccer,'' says sociologist Mauricio Murad. ''And the more art you see on the field, the less violence you will see in the stands.''

Others disagree. Improved play won't satisfy everyone, they say, comparing the Brazilian situation to that in Europe, where most hostilities are instigated by young males, often jobless and without prospects.

''Our violent fans are like the skinheads or England's hooligans,'' said Jack London, the former secretary for sport and leisure for the state of Rio de Janeiro. ''It's a social demonstration of their dissatisfaction with the way things are.''

Mr. London and other experts agree that most violence is committed by members of the nation's organized fan clubs, whose memberships range from 7,000 to 40,000.

Mr. Murad, who directs Rio de Janeiro State University's Permanent Center for the Sociology of Football, has studied Brazilian soccer violence since 1991. He says that while Brazilian fan clubs are best known for waving banners, chanting team slogans, and gyrating to samba rhythms, ''carnivalization'' changed to ''militarization'' in the 1970s during Brazil's military dictatorship. Club leaders organized their members into platoons and dubbed themselves ''captains.'' By the late 1980s, sporadic violence was common.

''The fan clubs are an escape valve for many youths,'' Murad says. ''They have no other channel for political and cultural participation, so they channel all their energy into soccer.''

They join clubs with names like the ''Green Stain'' (Sao Paulo's Palmeiras), ''Youth Force'' (Rio's Vasco), ''Wise Guy'' (Rio's Botafogo), and the ''Loyal Hawks'' (Sao Paulo's Corinthians) and are initiated by beatings or ''trophy hunts,'' in which jerseys are torn off the backs of rival fans.

''Just wearing your team's jersey could be a passport to death,'' said an editorial in the Jornal do Brasil.

''These youths suffer from a collective delirium as if they are in the game,'' Murad says. ''They believe the game is won on the field by the team and off the field by the fans.''

And it is outside the nation's stadiums where much of the violence occurs. In November, a bystander was shot and killed and two others were wounded during a clash between Flamengo and archrival Fluminense fans after a game at Marcana. Five other fans were killed in violent, after-game incidents last year.

Despite all of last season's problems, there is much optimism that new security measures, TV campaigns, and the return of Romario will fill the stadiums again with what are arguably the world's most fanatic soccer fans.

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