Just a few weeks ago, Argentina’s national rugby team were riding high after bagging their first ever win over New Zealand. The Pumas had scored a major victory over the sport’s greatest-ever team and the world was taking note. Over the past week, Argentine rugby has again found itself centre-stage – though sadly this time for the wrong reasons.
The sport was plunged into crisis this week after the discovery of racist and xenophobic messages posted more than seven years ago on social networks by key players, including national team captain Pablo Matera.
The news prompted outrage, the swift suspension of three players and the skipper’s firing. And then, just 48 hours later, after an almost unbelievable U-turn by the sport’s national authorities, the bans were lifted and the captain reinstated.
Today, at the end of a turbulent week, the Pumas will take to the field in Sydney, hoping to shift the conversation back to what happens on the pitch. The scandal, however, refuses to go away.
The furore began on Monday, when a storm over racist tweets posted by three players – Matera, Guido Petti and Santiago Socino – erupted online. The racist and xenophobic messages, dating from 2011 to 2013, resurfaced in the wake of criticism that the Pumas did not adequately pay tribute to late football legend Diego Maradona before last Saturday's clash against New Zealand.
The posts were strongly disparaging. In his tweets, since deleted, Matera spoke of it being "a lovely morning to go out and run over blacks.” Petti referred to his domestic worker as a "primate" and spoke of "blacks" stealing mobile phones and wallets. Socino expressed disgust at a plaza that was "full of blacks," and joked that a bomb should be let off. Another tweet from the hooker, best left unfinished, began "I am not in favour of apartheid, but..."
Condemnation arrived swiftly from key figures both inside and outside the game. Former international Mauricio Reggiardo, while recognising the posts were made years ago, said Matera should "pay" for his mistake nevertheless. "When one is captain of the Pumas, one must be exemplary," he added.
Victoria Donda, the head of the INADI state discrimination watchdog described it as a sign that "racism is nesting in Argentina.”
Reacting rapidly to the scandal, the Argentina Rugby Union (UAR) announced it had "revoked" Matera’s captaincy and suspended him along with Petti and Socino.
"The Argentina Rugby Union forcefully rejects the discriminatory and xenophobic comments published by members of the Pumas squad on social media," the governing body said in a strongly worded statement, adding that “condemns any instance of hate speech and considers it unacceptable that anyone expressing those views would represent our country."
It said it had suspended "Pablo Matera, Guido Petti and Santiago Socino from the national team until their disciplinary situation is defined," adding that proceedings had been opened against them.
Not everyone backed the decision to suspend the players and sack the captain, however. By Wednesday, reports of unrest in the Pumas camp had begun to emerge.
According to La Nación, several players expressed concerns that the trio had been hung out to dry, used as scapegoats. Journalist Alejo Mirando even claimed that some had considered refusing to play on Saturday's final match of the season against Australia in solidarity with their colleagues.
Voices from the game were also offering their support. Former Pumas captain Agustín Pichot said that the “tweets were wrong,” but said he believed in the players’ “repentance and maturation since they were written.”
“We have to continue making a deep self-criticism in our sport,” he added.
By now, the three players were attempting to do just that. Matera, who captained Argentina at last year's World Cup and plays club rugby for top Paris side Stade Français, apologised for his "barbarisms" in a message on Instagram.
"I'm sorry to everyone who was offended by the barbarisms I wrote," the 27-year-old wrote. "At that moment, I could never imagine who I would become. Today I have to take responsibility for what I said nine years ago.
"I want to apologise as well to my team and to my family for what they are experiencing because of my actions."
Petti and Socino also apologised, saying that today they repudiated the messages they posted in the past.
On Thursday, the UAR released another statement, confirming it was taking dramatic U-turn and lifting the suspension. It said that while disciplinary proceedings were ongoing, the body had decided that "upholding interim measures is unnecessary,” and that it had decided to “lift the suspension of the three players and reinstate the captaincy of Pablo Matera."
National team coach Mario Ledesma soon came to the players’ defence in a Zoom video press conference, hailing the trio as “great men.” He said the players would not take to the field against Australia on Saturday in Sydney, while making it clear they would be back.
"They reached an agreement with the union about not playing this game but what I can say is they are three fine players and great men, they are great human beings," he said on a Zoom call.
"They've been suffering a lot this week, their families have suffered a lot this week. It's really sad to see."
Asked if Matera would resume the captaincy, given that Jerónimo de la Fuente has been handed the skipper's armband for Saturday's match, he replied: "Exactly right. Pablo won't be playing this game but he is still the captain."
Ledesma, a former Pumas star himself, said there had been "a lot of hate going on" during the week and his players were "really, really affected."
"They are not the same people that they were at 17 or 18 years old. They are great men, family men," he said of the trio.
The turbulent week caps a rollercoaster year for the Pumas, who have endured lockdowns and a coronavirus-hit build-up to the Tri Nations, in which they stunned New Zealand and drew with Australia before crashing to the All Blacks last weekend. It has also intensified debate about the game and the culture surrounding it. Many in Argentina view rugby as something for the elite and wealthy.
"The pioneer clubs are upper class, those that followed are also that way,” La Nación rugby writer Jorge Búsico said this week.
“The leadership, the power of rugby, the ones who decide are elitist," he added.
It’s not the first time the sport has caused headlines over the past year either. Back in January, a group of young rugby players were arrested and jailed after beating 18-year-old Facundo Báez to death outside a nightclub.
"They beat him out of racism and because they were prepared to kill someone; if it wasn't him, it would surely be someone else. It was with hatred; maybe they think like that and felt superior because they were blonde and Fernando had brown skin," said Silvino Báez, the late 18-year-old’s father in a post on social media this week.
The game’s authorities say they are tackling the issue. In the capital, for example, the Buenos Aires Rugby Union has set up a comprehensive training programme to educate athletes and improve behaviour.
"These tweets from 2012 but which no-one saw before, were warnings, as there were warnings in the previous episodes such as those who killed Fernando had. We must take care of it," said Facundo Sasso, a rugby coach and member of the BARU’s commission.