To say that soccer is popular in Argentina, a nation that boasts two World Cup victories and created a parody religion around its beloved former player Diego Maradona, would be an understatement.
The final of this year’s Copa Libertadores, South America’s premier club tournament, features Boca Juniors and River Plate – two teams from Buenos Aires with an over-century-old bitter rivalry dubbed the “Superclásico.”
River has won Argentina’s top domestic league 36 times to Boca’s 33, making the two clubs by far the most successful teams in the nation. League matches between the neighboring rivals produce perhaps the most electric crowds in all of soccer each year.
The two teams have won the Copa Libertadores nine times combined but had never faced each other in a final until this year. The excitement surrounding this season’s showdown elevated South American soccer to a global stage usually reserved for the wealthier European game.
Yet with the eyes of the soccer world on Buenos Aires, rampant passion manifested into humiliating actions by fans.
While the passion around soccer in Argentina is unmatched anywhere in the world, so too is the violence.
At the scheduled second leg of the final on Saturday, River fans threw stones, sticks and bottles at the Boca bus, shattering glass windows and injuring several players. Tear gas and pepper spray, which the police had used outside the vehicle to try to contain opposing fans, then seeped into players’ eyes.
The match was quickly postponed due to the Boca team injuries. On Thursday, the South American Football Confederation said that it will reschedule the game for Dec. 9 in Madrid.
Despite the disappointment from many peaceful Argentine fans, the decision to play the game in another country is a correct one. The safety of players simply cannot be ensured by authorities who are currently vastly outnumbered by reckless crowds.
Unfortunately, Saturday’s event is nowhere near a standalone incidence of violence among fans.
In Argentina, organized travelling fan groups known as “barras bravas” often have connections to soccer clubs, local politicians and police. Clashes between barras bravas, infighting within groups and other hooligan confrontations have resulted in 256 soccer-related deaths documented between 1924 and 2011.
As recently as 2015, a Superclásico match was postponed due to fans spraying an irritant substance in opposing players’ eyes.
Charities such as Salvemos Al Futbol, known as Let’s Save Football in English, have raised awareness about the issue and proposed solutions such as training security forces, regulating fan group websites and improving building conditions and emergency exits.
However, regulating bodies like CONMEBOL and the Argentine Football Association have done little to enact these important solutions as the problem has worsened over several decades.
Given the gravity of the current situation, FIFA – the international governing body of the sport with over $1.4 billion in cash reserves – needs to step in and invest in safety measures throughout CONMEBOL countries, including stricter regulation and detection of weapons and flares for fans entering the stadium, coordinating the travel of team buses so that they can avoid violent fans and planning on playing heated rivalry games at neutral sites.
If nothing is done, the prospect of a safe and entertaining South American rivalry game may be no more than a distant dream.