Xenophobia in the Football Stands in Argentina

Originally published at Global Voices

Rivalries in Argentine football can become quite heated. The battles on the field often spill over into the stands, as club supporters clash with one another in various sections of the stadium. With nearly half of the 20 teams in the Argentine first division league located in the greater Buenos Aires area, it is quite easy for fans to follow their club even when playing as visitors. Even with precautions to keep fans away from one another, there are frequent clashes.

It is not always physical violence that marks the conflict between supporter groups often known as “hinchas” or “barra bravas.” Chants, songs, and signs can be directed at the opposing team and the opposing supporter groups. In some cases, these messages contain racist or xenophobic overtones, as it recently happened between a match between the club teams Independiente and Boca Juniors in Buenos Aires. Fans representing Independiente waved Paraguayan and Bolivian flags with the number 12 written on them. The number 12 has traditionally been used to symbolize the fans of Boca Juniors, which is one of the most popular clubs on the continent and boasts a large number of immigrant supporters living in Argentina. The fans used the flags and chants to mock the Boca Juniors supporters for having these large immigrant groups as part of their fan base.

Bloggers from both countries also reacted to the incident. Paraguayan Arturo Zarratea Herreros of Vida de Perros [es] would like the fans from Independiente to recall Arsenio Erico, who is the leading goal scorer of all time in the history of the Argentine league wearing the #9 shirt for the club Independiente and who also happened to be Paraguayan. Zarratea adds that the fans had honored Erico in the past and even a part of the stadium is even named after him. However, he writes:

Nadie es más ni menos por haber nacido en un país, así como nadie tiene derecho a discriminar por ese hecho. Recomiendo a los hinchas de Independiente, que portaron el domingo las banderas paraguayas, que lean la historia de su club y tomen lecciones de educación cívica para realizar estas “originales” burlas.

No one is more or less for being born in a country, just as no one has the right to discriminate for that fact. I recommend to the fans of Independiente, who held the Paraguayan flags, to read the history of their club and take lessons in civic education to (not) take part in this “original” mocking.

The incident caused an outrage by the diplomatic mission of Bolivia in Buenos Aires, which called for severe sanctions and a condemnation from the Argentine Football Association (AFA), which is something that the AFA President Julio Grondona promised to do [es]. Some fans in Bolivia and Paraguay also reacted to the incident in a very heated manner.

However, Bolivian football blogger Jaime Galarza of Once a Once [es] writes that the reaction should be measured and rational:

Hay que tener cuidado en cómo se reacciona en estos temas. Las protestas no tienen por qué seguir el camino de los intolerantes de las banderas y los cánticos ofensivos y despectivos, o sea, los anti xenofobia no deben terminar convertidos en xenófobos.

Lo de la barra brava de Independiente es lamentable, más si utilizaron símbolos oficiales que merecen respeto como las banderas de Bolivia y Paraguay. Pero no por lo ocurrido en una cancha de fútbol se tiene que ir contra un país. No se puede involucrar a “los argentinos” por un grupo de inadaptados. No caigamos en la intolerancia.

One must be careful with the reaction to these issues. The protests do not need to follow the same path of the intolerance of the flags or offensive and derogatory songs, in other words, the anti-xenophobics must not become the xenophobic.

What happened in the barra brava of Independiente is unfortunate, even more when they used official symbols that deserve respect like the Bolivian and Paraguayan flags. But what happened on the field should not be used against an entire country. One can’t blame “Argentines” for the acts of a group of maladjusted. Let’s not be a part of the intolerance.

Racism in football is a problem affecting many countries across the world, and Argentina is no different. Bolivian writer Edmundo Paz Soldán writes about his time spent studying International Relations at a university in Buenos Aires in the mid 1980s and his experiences attending Boca Juniors football matches where the Bolivian Milton Melgar had played on the squad [es]. He recalls a match against arch rivals River Plate, which his visiting brother also attended with him:

Salieron los equipos a la cancha, ví a Melgar y me emocioné. Siguieron los cánticos. Parecía una competencia para ver cuál hinchada era más creativa en la ofensa; un estribillo ingenioso era respondido por otro estribillo aun más creativo.

De pronto, la hinchada de River comenzó a corear: “¡Bolivianos, bolivianos, bolivianos!” La reacción de los hinchas de Boca en torno nuestro me impactó; decían cosas del tipo: “Nos jodieron estos gallinas. Y ahora, ¿cómo les respondemos?” No, no había forma. Para los hinchas de Boca, el peor insulto que se les podía decir era “bolivianos”. Por suerte, mi hermano no entendió lo que pasaba; cuando me preguntó por qué los gritos de “bolivianos”, le dije, procurando disimular mi rabia, que era la forma en que la hinchada de River reconocía el talento de Melgar.

The teams came out on the field, I saw Melgar and became excited. The songs continued. It appeared to be a competition to see which supporter group could be the most creatively offensive; a clever refrain was responded to by a more clever refrain.

Soon, the fans of River (Plate) started to sing: “Bolivians, Bolivians, Bolivians!” The reaction by the fans of Boca around me impacted me; they would say: “Those chickens (nickname for the fans of River Plate) messed with us, and now how do we respond?” No, there was no way to. For the fans of Boca, the worst insult was being called “Bolivians.” Fortunately, my brother did not understand what was happening; when he asked me why they yelling “Bolivians,” I told him, trying to hide my anger, that it was the way the River fans acknowledged Melgar’s talent.

These incidents are not always limited to the fans, even the referees have been known to utilize some racist language. Paz Soldán continues in his blog post by describing the incident that took place in 2008 between the clubs Argentinos Juniors and Gimnasia y Esgrima in the northern city of Jujuy. The referee Saúl Laverni had made a bad call and the players from the local side started to protest and plead with Leverni, who told the players, “stop bothering me, Bolivians.” The president of Gimnasia Raúl Ulloa resigned and said [es], “He called us Bolivians, and after 20 years in football, is something that I won’t tolerate.”

Sanctions against clubs can be monetary in nature, suspension of stadium privileges and in some cases, criminal action against the offending parties. No penalty has been announced against the club Independiente. During last weekend’s match [es], the players of the club Independiente came out of the locker room with a banner with the flags of Paraguay and Bolivia next to the Independiente shield and the words, “No to the Discrimination of our Brother Countries: Bolivia and Paraguay.”