On Wednesday evening River Plate’s bid to complete an unprecedented treble in the 2018-2019 season continued unabated, as they downed Godoy Cruz 1-0 in Lanús to advance to the quarter- finals of the Copa Argentina. With a Copa Libertadores semi-final showdown against Boca Juniors looming in October and sitting just three points behind their arch-rivals in the Superliga standings, the Millonarios’ prospects of performing a clean sweep of silverware remain very much alive at this stage.
Matters on the pitch, however, quickly took a back seat as images of horrifying violence began to filter through from outside the Estadio Néstor Díaz Pérez. Serious incidents between Buenos Aires Province police officers and River fans cast a pall over the game, bringing into focus once more the perennial question: is anyone capable of stemming the tide and making Argentine football a safe place?
Television cameras show clearly how supporters who had descended on Lanús for the Copa Argentina tie – organised outside the Argentine Football Association (AFA) and in neutral stadiums, the competition generally allows, with some exceptions, both teams to take their fans to games – were harried and beaten by mounted forces and fired upon with rubber bullets in a heavy-handed anti-hooligan operation. The ostensible target were some 50 River barras, many of whom held outstanding stadium bans. The provincial police achieved their aim: dramatic photos of that guilty few kneeling against the wall, hands behind their heads, a snapshot of Argentine football film noir accompanied by the obligatory confiscations of weapons and other paraphernalia.
Among the arrested too were the usual heavyweights with their picturesque nicknames: El Gordo Ale, El Brian, monikers to strike fear into the hearts of regular innocent match-goers. Thugs who have been banished from the Monumental since 2018’s infamous attack on the Boca team coach minutes before that aborted Libertadores final second leg, and who have no place in football. But in their apparent attempt to ensure security, it was paradoxically the police who made the streets of Lanús a warzone.
Behind the ambush was one man. Juan Manuel Lugones was placed at the head of policing football in Argentina’s most populated province by Security Minister Cristian Ritondo in December 2015, and since then has overseen an administration big on theatrical shows of force but rather deficient on consistent, systematic policies to eradicate violence. This latest operation, similar to the outrageous decision to ban Estudiantes fans from wearing shirts with the number seven printed on them (a way of mocking local rivals Gimnasia by remembering their 7-0 victory in 2006), ensured plenty of headlines for Lugones, but had little real impact on the River barra itself, hundreds of whom were present throughout Wednesday’s match.
Lugones himself was able to look past the bloody outcome, which left the cousin of River idol Jonathan Maidana needing emergency surgery after suffering near-severed tendons in his leg after being shot from point-blank range. “Every time River come [to the province] they complain about something. I don’t know if they are controlled or not in the City of Buenos Aires, but here we comply with the Safe Stand programme, with searches,” he told TyC Sports after the game. “I am proud of the provincial police, who are working on putting barras behind bars.”
Visitors to stadiums the length and breadth of Buenos Aires Province know only too well what these programmes mean. Triple or even quadruple body searches before gaining access to the stands; the requirement to carry identity cards, which are scanned by officers stationed outside the ground; huge queues in blazing heat or biting cold due to these draconian measures; and, above all, little improvement in conditions. Six years after away fans were first banned, they are still no closer to returning, with permission to allow visitors sanctioned only in exceptional circumstances by Lugones’ APREVIDE administration and in the most arbitrary of fashions.
A few barras might have seen
their afternoons ruined on occasion, only to emerge back on
the streets a matter of hours
later; but the real losers, as ever,
remain the regular supporters,
who do not deserve to run a
gauntlet of police batons and
rubber batons for the right to
see their heroes in action.