Violence still engrained in Argentine game

BUENOS AIRES - Racing Club goalkeeper Pablo Migliore acted as if nothing unusual had happened during a recent morning training session. "We understand that the supporters are angry," he said. "We ask them to support us because we need to be together to get out of this situation.

"We've only taken three points from the last 30 and the players know that we are not doing things right. The opponents can win by playing better than you but not because they run more."

They were typical, run-of-the-mill comments from a player reluctantly facing the microphones.

Yet, it had been a far from normal morning at Racing, one of Argentina's most popular clubs and one of its most troubled.

The team had arrived to find threatening messages daubed in the street leading to the training ground. The most sinister read: "There are going to be bullets for everyone".

When the team came out to start practice, a group of around 15 men belonging to the club's hardcore group of fans demanded to speak to the players.

Migliore and Franco Sosa agreed to meet them but despite the climate of intimidation the goalkeeper gave the impression that the incident was a friendly chat.

"The supporters made us aware of their worries and their anger about the situation the team is in," he said. "And we asked for their support."

Many were shocked at the laid-back manner in which Migliore spoke of the incident.

Others said his reaction reflected the extent to which threats and violence have become part and parcel of Argentine soccer.

"A Racing player publicly judged that the threats were 'normal'," said La Nacion newspaper in an editorial.

"The impunity has reached such a degree that it seems they (the fans) are convinced that there are now no moral or institutional brakes on their behaviour."

IMMIGRANTS INSULTED

Argentine football suffers from chronic violence often blamed on organised supporters' groups called 'barras bravas'.

Traditionally, they have enjoyed a close relationship with the clubs, receiving free tickets and subsidised travel to away games.

Many groups are split into factions who fight sometimes amongst themselves and often side with club directors in internal political disputes.

Dutch security expert Otto Adang said European-style solutions to hooliganism would not work in Argentina.

"I'm shocked at the connections that the barras have with power," he said in an interview with the sports daily Ole.

"The European solution in Argentina is impractical. In Europe, the hooligans are concentrated in marginal groups with no relation to the system. Here, they are connected to a surprising extent."

A day before the threats to Racing's squad, more violence broke out.

Television pictures showed dozens of Boca Juniors fans fighting with police and among themselves before the game against Independiente, apparently angry that one supporter had been prevented from taking a gun into the stadium.

The same match produced an international protest when Independiente fans used the flags of Paraguay and Bolivia as an insult to Boca supporters.

Boca traditionally draw upon support from the working-class and many of their followers are reputed to be immigrants from the two neighbouring countries.

The following week saw more trouble as around 100 Boca fans fought amongst themselves near the Bombonera stadium before a game against Argentinos Juniors.

At least one man pulled out a gun and two people -- including an elderly woman bystander -- suffered gunshot wounds.

Almost at the same time, buses carrying fans of Argentinos Juniors and Racing Club to different games crossed paths near the centre of Buenos Aires.

The fans pelted each others' vehicles with stones, police arrived on the scene, blocked off the street and arrested 114 people.

HALF-HEARTED MEASURES

Similar outbreaks of violence in the past have brought half-hearted attempts of action from the authorities who have managed to temporarily diminish the problem rather than eradicate it.

In 2006, the Argentina Football Association (AFA) tried to ban away supporters at first division matches, a move which was overturned a week later after protests from the Players' Union.

This time, the AFA has announced an ambitious scheme, to be introduced next year, in which all fans must be finger-printed and obtain an electronic card, similar to a cash card, before they can attend matches.

The Minister of the Interior, Anibal Fernandez, has also announced that police will be able to bar known troublemakers from stadiums.

The only immediate measure from the authorities after the latest trouble was to bring forward the kick-off for Boca's Sunday visit to Tigre to 3 p.m. local time. It was the players, rather than the hooligans, who suffered, however, as the temperature on the field reached 30 degrees Celsius.