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Barra brava (fierce gang) is the name of organised supporters' groups of football teams in Latin America that provide fanatical support to their clubs in stadiums and provoke violence against rival fans and eventually the police.
Actions like the exhibition of choreographies (like throw smoke bombs, firecrackers, confetti and balloons and display giant flags that covers entire stands, or part of them, before the match starting) for welcome the team when its goes out to the pitch; wave and display of flags, banners and umbrellas; and coordination of chants (that accompany playing bass drums and trumpets and end up being sung by part or the rest of their team's crowd in the stadium while jump or applaud) during the whole match, are characteristic of their fervent behaviour aimed to encourage their team and intimidate referees and rival fans and players, for which also insult and spit them and throw objects to the pitch or invade it (on rare occasions) to assault them (usually this is prevented by the police).
They also look to attack rival fans (especially rival barras bravas), which lead to fights with them (most of the time outside of stadiums before or after matches, but sometimes during them in the stands), and defend the rest of their team' spectators from rival attacks (especially in away matches, where normally they are outnumbered by home fans) and police repression.
This groups originated in Argentina in the 1950s and spread throughout Latin America. Are similar to hooligan firms (from United Kingdom), torcidas organizadas (from Brazil) and ultras (originally from Italy but spread to the most part of Europe and Asia, Australia and North Africa).
During the 1920s in Argentine football matches spontaneously began to appear irregular groups of fans that stood out for their fervor from the rest of the crowd in the stadiums. These groups were denominated as barras by the media, a term that in Rioplatense Spanish slang is equivalent to the term gang, but in it original meaning (not necessarily associated to crime), that is 'an informal group of people (usually friends) who meet frequently and usually do common activities'. Their actions were limited to stadiums during home matches because they couldn't follow (at least the whole members) their teams to other cities very often neither provoke violence was their objective, as it violence arose spontaneously due to frustration caused by bad results of their team or as a way to influence the match through intimidation of rival players and referees with insults, throwing objects and occasionally entering to the pitch to assault them. Sometimes they also attacked rival fans (usually barras also) who used the same methods against their team. At the end of this decade, a few newspapers described one of this groups as a barra "brava" (Spanish for fierce), appearing the words barra brava together for the first time, but not yet like a term.
One of those groups, named as La barra de la Goma ("The barra of the rubber") by press, appeared in 1927 and supported San Lorenzo de Almagro. The nickname comes from the rubber of bike inner tubes (filled with sand, and tied with wire at the ends) that this group used in some occasions to attack rival fans. Sometimes also throwed objects to the players of rival teams to bother them when they should intervene in the game.
The barras became a traditional part of the Argentinian football crowds and evolved until, in the mid-1950s, they began receiving funding from football clubs to attend all the away matches. While intimidation towards referees and rival players and supporters was previously spontaneous, from that moment on it would be their main objective (along with encouraging their team). Another one happened to be to defend the rest of spectators and players of their club from the attacks of rival fans (especially in away matches) and police repression, which increased fights and riots, that occurred more frequently before and after the matches outside of stadiums (although many also occurred on the terraces during the games, sometimes leading to their suspension). Thus they became the first organised supporters' groups of football fans in the world that were focused on violence (later appeared hooligan firms in United Kingdom, ultras in Italy and torcidas organizadas in Brazil).
Argentine journalist Amílcar Romero stated that, before the appearance of such groups, when a team played away, it was intimidated by home fans. Barras bravas were a response to this pressure, so each club started to had its own barra brava, financed by the club leadership. These groups were given tickets and paid travel to the stadiums, and access to these benefits were controlled by the group's main members. To obtain prestige, the member had to be violent.
In Argentine football it was institutionalised that, if you played away, you were pressured inexorably. Although it was not about barras bravas as we know them today. Home fans pressured you and, police, if wasn't looking away, also pressured you. That had to be compensated with a theory that in the next decade (the 1950s) was rife: to every operating group with a mystical ability to produce violence, the only way to counter it is with another minority group, with as much or more mystique to produce violence.— Amílcar Romero.
In 1958, media has begun to notice the existence of barras bravas after the riots during a match between Vélez Sarsfield and River Plate (at José Amalfitani stadium), at which 18-year-old Alberto Mario Linker bystander was killed by police (he was accidentally hit in the head by a tear gas grenade thrown at point-blank range from a grenade launcher) when cops tried to disperse River Plate fans who were causing unrest in a terrace located behind one of the goals. Police and unresters were criticized by the media, and newspaper La Razón mentioned the existence of barras fuertes (strong gangs) in Argentine football that were already known by many people, differentiating them for the first time from the traditional barras as being more organised, hierarchical and coordinated, like it was observed among River Plate' rioters on that occasion.
Barra brava as the currently term appeared in Argentine media in the 1960s, but became popular in the 1980s. In Argentina, barra brava's members until early 1990s rejected that term (many even today) for consider it pejorative, and prefer being denominated as fanbase/crowd's guides (largely because if a supporter group it's identified as a defined group of people that is involved in illegal acts, the Argentine justice can judge the members as participants of an illicit association, legal figure that hardens the penalties).
Although since the beginnings of Argentine football there were many fights and riots carried out by fans, players, club's leaders and police (with the first registered death caused by violence in 1923), the Alberto Mario Linker's death was signaled as the beginning of an era of habituation to violence. During the following decades, riots and deaths increased at the same time that barras bravas turned more numerous and organised.
According to some studies, Argentina has the most dangerous organised supporters' groups in the world. Through August 2012 Argentine football has experienced more than 200 deaths related to hooliganism. Since 2013, all visiting fans were banned from matches of the first division.
These groups deploy and wave flags (that in Argentine football slang are called trapos -cloths-), banners and umbrellas (with team's colours), and use musical instruments (such as drums and, since the mid-2000s, trumpets) to accompany their chants. They occupy terraces where viewers must stand, while in all-seater stadiums (rare in Argentina and many other Latin American countries), barras bravas also remain stand throughout the match. The most characteristic flags are shaped like giant strips several meters in length (called trapos largos -long cloths- or tirantes -suspenders-), that are deployed from the top of the terrace to the bottom. Each group usually also have a banner with its name.
Traditionally, many members (usually important ones) stand upon the crush barriers that are placed in terraces to prevent crushing (even though some common fans also do it, but not in those barriers located in the terrace's center). To not fall from there, they hold on from a "suspender" (this was the purpose to make this flags shaped like strips), the body of someone else that is by his side and sustained to the flag, or the hand of some supporter that is standing below (in the floor).
They start and coordinate most of the chants, wave the most important and big flags and always are located in the center of the terrace that occupy. Until the group enters to the terrace (usually a few minutes before or sometimes after the match starting), the center isn't occupped by the crowd (even if the terrace it is almost filled), being left empty to show respect to the barra brava's place.
Originally these groups were not very numerous or powerful. Over the years, this changed to the point of cases where the barra brava decided who would be the club's chairman. Since the 1980s and 1990s, hooliganism has grown and some groups engaged in illegal activities such as extorting money from club leadership, players and hawkers that work at the stadium and surroundings, sell tickets (that are given by club leaders) to matches in the black market, charge for parking in the vicinity of the stadium, etc. Many members also steal (participating in burglaries, larcenies and robberies, sometimes even being part of criminal organizations) or sell drugs as a way to obtain money for travels (club' leaders don't pay the travel for the whole group when the destination is far), the making of flags or buying elements (balloons, confetti, pyrotechnics, etc.) used in the team's receptions to the pitch. They often provide services to political and union leaders who hire them as agitator groups (during rallies and mass meetings, that in Argentina traditionally have people chanting like football crowds, playing drums and even shooting firecrackers), goon squads (clashing with supporters of other political parties, unions or police during demonstrations, protests, rallies and strikes), bodyguards, etc.
They are funded also by club leadership, which may give salaries to some members or even a percentage of the profits. Also, when the stadium of some club is used for a non-football event (like concerts), usually the club's barra brava members are employed as security guards to take care of the facilities.
In Argentina, since the 2000s, a large percentage of deaths related to football were related to internal disputes within barras bravas, emerging subgroups into it that sometimes even had it own names.
The size of a barra brava is generally related to the level of the club's popularity. However, some clubs have big supporters' groups without being very popular (this usually occurs when the club has, at least, a relatively high popularity in a high populated working class zone of an urban area). Group sizes range from a dozen of members in very small clubs, to more than a thousand in important ones (groups with several hundred of members or more started to appear in the 1980s -before that decade weren't so big-), all them with a hierarchical structure that gets stronger and complexer when the group's size is bigger. There are also many small clubs (with very few fans) that don't have a barra brava.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Ultras.|
- "Las barras aparecen con la industrialización del fútbol" [Barras appears with industrialization of football]. Página/12. 13 July 2003.
- Magallón, Enrique López (10 October 2007). "Los hooligans más peligrosos del mundo están en Argentina" [The most dangerous hooligans in the world are in Argentina]. Deutsche Welle. Retrieved 24 November 2014.
- User, Super. "About Us". www.barra-brava.com. Retrieved 7 May 2016.
- "Argentina bans football away fans". BBC News. 12 June 2013. Retrieved 28 November 2018.
- Kelly, Annie (20 August 2011). "The barra bravas: the violent Argentinian gangs controlling football". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 17 July 2017.