Mom security doesn’t change the violent reality of Brazilian soccer

Not enough attention, it seems, has been paid to the link between Brazilian soccer and moms. Whether it’s Mother’s Day tributes via social media, Corinthians players taking the field with their mothers’ names inscribed on the back of their shirts, Atlético Mineiro fans paying homage to Ronaldinho’s sick mom Dona Miguelina (a gesture much appreciated by the toothy genius, above), or TV commentators gazing round an emptier than usual than stadium on a Sunday afternoon in May and explaining, with a shrug “well, it is Mother’s Day’” the bond between fans and players and their mãinhas is a strong one.

Which is why Recife club Sport’s decision to employ an army of soccer moms (in this case mothers of fans) as stewards at Sunday’s clássico with city rivals Náutico made sense. Even the most brutish member of a torcida organizada (organized fan club, or hooligan gang, depending on your outlook) is unlikely to be callow enough to hit someone’s mom. Sure enough, the game passed off peacefully.

Not that Brazilian soccer should be celebrating a breakthrough in its war against (hooligan) terror just yet. First of all, the match, played in the early rounds of the local Campeonato Pernambucano state championship at the almost always sparsely populated Arena Pernambuco World Cup venue, was little more than a preseason friendly masquerading as a classico. In a 46,000 stadium the crowd was just over 13,000.

Secondly, Sport versus Náutico is relatively small fry compared to Recife’s most bloodthirsty rivalry, which is between Sport and Santa Cruz. It is debatable whether Sport’s admirable gesture would have proved quite so successful at separating 40,000 seething fans on the aging terraces of the Ilha do Retiro or Arruda (Sport and Santa’s respective homes). Finally, all torcidas organizadas are currently banned from attending games in Pernambuco, following previous violent incidents.

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Tellingly, at the same time as Recifense fans were behaving themselves under the moms’ watchful eyes, all hell was breaking loose at the Palmeiras versus Corinthians clássico in São Paulo. The streets outside the spanking new Allianz Parque filled with tear gas and the crack of rubber bullets as police battled Palmeiras fans, while inside, Corinthians fans fought among themselves and smashed up stadium seats.

“I couldn’t breathe because of the smoke bombs,” local resident Cezário Raimundo da Silva told the Folha de São Paulo newspaper. “I had to run two blocks (to escape). I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.”

Brazil Fan Violence

Perhaps more disheartening than the violence was the all too familiar pantomime that surrounded it. Backed by the São Paulo’s attorney’s office, Palmeiras had pushed for home fans only to be allowed to attend the game. That plan was abandoned following the threat of legal action by Corinthians, which in turn had been pressurized by its own fans – the team’s biggest organizada, the Gaviões da Fiel (“the Hawks of the Faithful”) threatened that the team would not be allowed to travel to the stadium unless the ban was overturned. Immediately after the game, Corinthians’ newly elected president Roberto de Andrade declared he “hadn’t seen any fighting” and that “nothing had been broken.”

The standard soccer violence debate then filled the airwaves – the “lock up these marginais (“thugs”)” devotees versus the “it’s a societal problem” advocates, all seasoned with a great deal of hand-wringing and bemoaning of the breakdown of Brazilian society, one of the world’s most violent. A São Paulo-based journalist claimed that Corinthians had not only subsidized tickets for the Gaviões da Fiel, but had reserved the club’s entire allocation for the gang, with ordinary club members unable to buy tickets. This morning (Tuesday), the São Paulo attorney’s office said it intends to prosecute both clubs for their role in the violence.

All the arguments – that the violence and inequality of Brazilian society is to blame, that the clubs are to blame, that the police and justice system are to blame, that the torcidas organizadas are to blame – undoubtedly contain some amount of truth. If a soccer crowd can only ever be a large, democratic gathering of people taken from a particular society, then how can that crowd not reflect such a society and its ills? To imagine that the violence that kills 50,000 Brazilians a year (with the vast majority of such murders occurring in the same poor, often rough neighborhoods from where many torcida organizada members spring) will suddenly disappear in and around soccer stadiums is surely fantasy.

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The violence “isn’t a soccer problem, it’s a social problem” Paulo Cesar Cunha, president of the Santa Cruz torcida organizada Inferno Coral told me in an interview for Rolling Stone last year, explaining how organizadas are often riven by disputes between gangs from different neighborhoods, and that different factions supporting the same club can often wage bloody war on each other (in 2013 league champion Cruzeiro’s celebratory title-winning street party was cancelled as the Mafia Azul fought with its rivals Pavilhão Independente). Also, he said, the leaders of the gangs know only a small percentage of those who purport to be members – and membership, or at least the totals of those who wear organizada shirts, can number in the tens of thousands.

While Cunha certainly believed what he was saying, there is no doubt that he, and other organizada leaders, could do much, much more to eradicate the violence they claim to oppose. Organizadas surround themselves with violent imagery – the Inferno Coral crest is a machine gun-toting bulldog – and cultivate alliances with the organizadas of other clubs, purportedly for moral and logistical support when travelling to away games, but more often than not, it seems, to have another excuse for a fight.

Later on the same night that we speak, at a game between Santa and Paraná Clube, a Sport fan and member of the club’s organizada Jovem Sport, is killed by a toilet thrown from the upper deck of the Arruda stadium. He had been at the game to cheer on Paraná – Jovem Sport is allied with the southern club’s Fúria Independente gang. Meanwhile the Inferno Coral, officially banned from the stadium, had gone to the match dressed in the green and white colors of Império Alviverde, the organizada of Coritiba, Paraná’s city rivals. Go figure, as a wise man once said.

Brazil’s soccer clubs must also shoulder their share of the blame. “I don’t like to discriminate whether someone is fan A type or fan B type,” said Roberto de Andrade after Sunday’s game, conveniently overlooking the fact that the club had apparently ensured that only Gaviões da Fiel members could attend the match. But maintaining close relations with the often vast organizadas is usually essential for the career prospects of Brazilian soccer chairmen, as their support can prove vital come election time. Free match tickets and away travel, plus a blind eye turned to any “unfortunate” incidents, is usually a small price to pay – even if, by courting the favors of the organizadas, Brazil’s clubs ensure they have blood on their hands.

Then there is the response of Brazil’s police and justice system. Policing generally takes the form of meeting truculence with truculence – a repeat of the response to the English hooligan problem in the 1970s and 1980s. While a more liberal stance may admittedly be difficult when faced with violent, marauding fans, Brazilian soccer’s cycle of violence shows that the current strategies are clearly not working. As Cunha says, “the politicians and the police and the clubs have meetings to talk about how to resolve the problem. The only people they don’t invite are the people who truly understand how things work. The organizadas.”

Brazil’s notoriously lenient justice system is another major part of the problem. State prosecutors like nothing better than to dish out temporary bans for the organizadas, but as identifying members when they arrive at the stadium is considerably more difficult than signing a court order, such bans often amount to little more than a prohibition of organizada shirts, musical instruments and flags.

When those responsible for the violence are arrested, Brazil’s legal sloth and impunity kicks in. Not one of those responsible for the mass brawl between Vasco da Gama and Atlético Paranaense in Dec. 2013 (above) is currently behind bars. Six months after being arrested in Bolivia following the launching of a naval flare that a killed young fan, three Corinthians fans were involved in an incident with Vasco da Gama supporters in the Mané Garrincha World Cup stadium in Brasilia.

Perhaps the best example of the justice system’s generosity, meanwhile, came in March last year when, after around 100 Corinthians fans had staged a violent invasion of the club’s training ground, physically threatening players and staff, a judge released three of the men arrested at the scene, declaring, remarkably, that “they are loyal fans who only wanted to draw attention to the situation, and make the players earn their salaries by playing the true Brazilian way.”

Depressingly, rather than holding a serious debate on the subject involving all parties, Brazilian soccer simply wheels out the platitudes, many of which drip with self-interest, every time the country’s TV channels are filled with scenes of rioting fans. The inevitable result is that nothing ever seems to change.

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The first soccer related murder of the modern era is believed to have occurred when Cléo Sostenes, leader of Palmeiras’ Mancha Verde gang, was killed in 1988. Since then, according to Lance! magazine, 275 people have lost their lives in soccer related violence. The most recent fatality came just last week, on the first day of the new season, when a 16-year-old fan was shot, reportedly by police, during fighting between fans after a game between Novo Hamburgo and Aimoré in the south of Brazil.

In the absence of honest dialogue and an acceptance of mutual responsibility, a practical, joined-up solution to the problem involving clubs, fan groups (including the torcidas organizadas), police and the justice system seems a remote possibility. Even with the help of the soccer moms, just as in the country’s wider society, an end to Brazil’s cycle of violence seems as far away as ever.


Photo credit: AP Photo/Andre Penner.