Like many of those living in Villa Fiorito, one of Argentina’s most dangerous slums, Jose Mendez takes his shots at glory when he can — like the day five years ago when he slung the shirt of a rival soccer club over his shoulder and paraded through the streets of his neighborhood like a returning warrior. Cigarette clamped between his teeth and the shirt hanging off his skinny frame, Mendez recounts the fight he waged to win his trophy: the crowded streets after a big match; the other fan putting up a struggle; Mendez, pumped up on chemicals and cheap beer, knocking him down into the street, smashing his face and kicking him until he could get the shirt off his back.
“I took the shirt,” he said. “I put it over my shoulder and walked through the barrio with everyone watching.”
He struts up and down the dirt path outside his family home, replaying his victory march.
“After that I was in, they knew how much I loved the club. I was one of them,” he said.
As with many poor men across Argentina, soccer has shaped Mendez’s life and his identity. He says soccer is the one glorious thing in his life, a chink of color in the monotony of poverty, crime and unemployment that surrounds him and his young family. However, recently his devotion has led Mendez down a different path. Since his glory march through the streets of Fiorito, Mendez has become a barra brava, a self-proclaimed soldier for his club and part of a well-organized and violent network of fans that now wields almost unfettered power over the multimillion-dollar business of soccer in Argentina.
In practically every major club side — which includes some of the world’s most famous teams — the power of the fans is out of control. Using mob violence and intimidation, Argentina’s barras bravas cream hundreds of thousands of dollars from the game every year through illegal rackets, money laundering and narcotics, underpinned by police and state corruption and supported by the clubs and players themselves.
The only way to understand how Argentina’s fans have grown so powerful is to witness them first-hand. La Bombonera, Boca Juniors’ famous stadium, squats in the heart of the working-class La Boca neighborhood in the south of Buenos Aires. When I go to a match, the whole structure shakes underfoot as trumpets blare and thousands of fans jump and dance in a shower of ticker tape.
Next to me, amid the riot of noise and furious anticipation, a man wearing a Boca shirt is silently praying, face raised to the sky. As the players enter the stadium to an animal roar, he bellows his love for his team into the night.
“Boca! Boca! Boca!” he screams, tears running down his face as he reaches his arms out to the tiny figures below. “I love you, I love you.”
Down by the pitch in the “popular” stands, La Doce (The Twelfth Player) — Boca Juniors’ hardcore fan base — are a tight mass of thrashing bodies, twirling their blue and yellow shirts around their heads, dancing, singing and banging drums. As the match starts, they surge toward the fence separating the fans from the pitch, bodies slamming against the chain-link, screaming their team on to victory.
Throughout the match La Doce lead the chants; the players on the pitch feed off their adulation and when the crowd grows restless at the sluggish pace, it is to La Doce that they look for support. Yet, while La Doce may have the rightful reputation as the world’s most passionate fans in a country that has spawned some of the world’s greatest players and most exciting club soccer, they have also evolved into one of the most feared and infamous groups of barra brava in the country.