Letter from Buenos Aires: Soccer fan violence leaves G20 host with jitters

Diego Martinez/AP
Security forces stand guard outside outside Antonio Vespucio Liberti stadium, where River Plate soccer fans gathered before the announcement that their team's final Copa Libertadores match against rival Boca Juniors was suspended for a second day in a row in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Sunday, Nov. 25, 2018.

Under normal circumstances, the hooligan street violence that forced the postponement Saturday of what had been billed as the South American soccer “Final for all Time” between Buenos Aires arch rivals Boca Juniors and River Plate would have remained a sordid affair among Argentines.

But this is no normal week in Buenos Aires. Beginning Friday, the Argentine capital will host more than three dozen world leaders – including Presidents Trump, Xi Jinping, and Vladimir Putin – at the G20 summit of large and emerging economies.

And so what normally would have been limited to a national scandal has taken on international importance, with extensive hand-wringing over the impact of the violence on Argentina’s global image and the country’s ability to safely host one of the world’s most high-powered economic forums.

Why We Wrote This

Argentina hoped hosting this week's G20 economic forum would showcase how far it's come in recent years. Could a poorly timed confrontation among soccer fans throw that plan off course?

If security forces couldn’t handle marauding bands of soccer hooligans, some Argentines ask, what are the prospects for efficiently dealing with the anarchists and other anti-globalists who usually show up itching for a fight at international economic gatherings like the G20 summit? Moreover, what does the soccer-related violence say about Argentina?

The national lamentations dominated the front pages of Sunday newspapers and have continued into mid-week.

The “grotesque affair demonstrated the worst of Argentine society and exposed its organizational incapacity,” opined La Nación newspaper columnist Claudio Cerviño Sunday. It ran under a front-page photo of a shirtless River hooligan throwing a bottle that would break a window of the passing Boca team bus.

In an entire special section dedicated to the scandal, less than 24 hours after the violence occurred, another Nación columnist, Francisco Schiavo, wrote that “this happened right when it should not have happened, with the imminent G20 summit putting the city of Buenos Aires on lockdown. But it happened,” he wrote, “because of who we are as Argentines.”

Family affair

Saturday’s violence, which resulted in multiple injuries and arrests, was indeed shocking. But it has its roots in a deep-seated rivalry between Boca and River fans that for some bleeds into hatred.

Soccer is a family affair in Argentina, with team loyalty passed along from one generation to another. But there’s a downside when that kinship turns mafia-like. Passions are so intense that when the two teams face off, as they were supposed to in the final of the Copa Libertadores, only fans and ticket-holders from the hosting club are allowed into the hosting stadium.

It was when the “visiting” Boca Juniors’ team bus was approaching River Plate’s stadium that it crossed paths with a mob of River hooligans. Rocks and bottles flew, bus windows exploded, and a number of Boca players were cut by flying glass. Police responded with tear gas and pepper spray.

Initially Saturday’s final was delayed 24 hours. But on Sunday Conmebol, the organizing committee for South America’s most prestigious soccer tournaments, announced an indefinite postponement pending committee consultations.

Conmebol made a decision Tuesday that hit Argentina in the gut. Declaring that “Football [soccer] is not won with rocks and aggressions,” the committee declared Argentina unfit to host the final and said it would be played Dec. 8 in another country, most likely neighboring Uruguay or Chile. Miami, Fla. and even Qatar have offered to host the game. Both teams rejected the decision, leaving the final up in the air. 

A 'normal country'

The violence and national soul-searching that have followed have struck a blow to President Mauricio Macri, who has bet heavily on the G20 summit as a way to show off a “new” Argentina on the world stage. He wanted the world to witness a “normal country,” as Mr. Macri declared as his goal when elected in 2015. That means an Argentina freed from old ghosts of Peronist populism and deep social divides, and a country ready to confidently open up to a competitive world.

Macri has started tackling Argentina’s debilitating debt, earning the confidence of the International Monetary Fund – which rewarded him by issuing a multibillion-dollar loan to stave off insolvency. The Trump administration, impressed with Macri’s willingness to take unpopular steps like slashing electricity subsidies, plans to renew US imports of Argentine beef.

So confident was Macri that Argentina had indeed changed that he initially proposed in the run-up to Saturday’s fiasco that the aspirational hashtag for the final – “RivalsNotEnemies” – be taken seriously. He suggested Boca fans be allowed to enter River’s stadium for the match, an idea that was quickly shot down.

But the violence injured and saddened Argentines well beyond Buenos Aires’ Casa Rosada, the presidential palace.

“This is a problem of security, but it is also a problem of how we Argentines act toward each other,” says José María Campos, a River fan first and taxi driver second. Indeed Mr. Campos was inside Monumental Stadium, River’s home, awaiting the final when word circulated of the siege of the Boca bus and the subsequent match postponement.

“I don’t know what the authorities were thinking, allowing the River hooligans to get so close to the Boca team bus,” he says. “Everybody in Argentina knows there are hooligans on both sides ready to act on their hatred. It’s sad,” he adds, “but it’s a fact you have to anticipate.”

The security shortfalls led to the immediate sacking of Buenos Aires’ public safety chief. At a press conference Monday, Macri announced he would include tough anti-hooligan legislation in a package he’ll propose to an upcoming special congressional session.

Such measures have been proposed in the past, only to die over public sensitivity to anything that might be construed as opening the door to the kind of police repression Argentines experienced in the increasingly distant military dictatorship that lasted from 1976 to 1983.

And in an effort to calm widespread jitters over what the weekend violence might suggest about the country’s preparedness for the G20 summit, officials at the Casa Rosada insist the two organizational challenges are completely different – first and foremost because G20 security will be in the hands of national, not local, authorities.

Still, to be on the safe side, Macri has declared Friday a holiday in Buenos Aires, in an effort to keep the city center, not far from where the G20 summit will take place, free of commuters.

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