Argentina's soccer tradition mired in history of violence

Feb 19, 2016, 10:53 AM EST
Argentina's Lionel Messi battles with Brazil's Neymar (L) while teammate Fernando Gago (R) looks on during their international friendly soccer match in East Rutherford, New Jersey, June 9, 2012.
Source: Catatan Bola/flickr

After Argentina went home empty-handed in the Copa América last year, losing in the final game to Chile months after dropping an extra-time match to Germany in the 2014 World Cup finals, soccer legend Diego Maradona had harsh words for and about countryman Lionel Messi.

Messi, who regularly trades places with Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo as the best player in the sport, had just had a less-than-stellar Copa, scoring a single goal while notching only three assists. In an interview with an Argentine daily, Maradona let fly:

“We have the best player in the world, one who can go and score four goals on Real Sociedad, and then he comes here and doesn’t score at all . . . Man, are you Argentine or Swedish? We need to stop busting on the folks who say we should baby Messi. Messi needs to be treated just like we treat all the other players who put on the national team uniform.”

In criticizing Messi, Maradona, never one to turn away from controversy, touched upon the open secret of Argentine soccer – that it coddles no one. Sure, FIFA awarded Messi the Ballon d’Or as the sport's top male player for a record fifth time in 2015, but back home the rules are different and the play, as recent events suggest, far more perilous.

Soccer has long been the lifeblood of Argentina. Throughout a history of political instability, military coups, faltering economies and war with enemies both near and far, the one constant source of near-unanimous pride has been fútbol. The national team has captured two World Cup titles, 14 regional championships and Olympic gold in both 2004 and 2008.

Yet Argentina has never succeeded in hiding the fact that there is also a seamy, hard-edged side to the way it plays the world’s most popular sport. While soccer everywhere is haunted by hooliganism and far too much ugliness -- ranging from French star Zinedine Zidane’s infamous head butt in the 2006 World Cup to the overt racism rained down on black players who play in Europe’s clubs -- Argentine soccer often goes way beyond trash talk.

Spain’s King Juan Carlos was among the thousands to witness a brawl at a 1984 tournament in Bilbao in which dozens of people were injured. It is believed the spark was an opposing player’s use of a “xenophobic term” insinuating that Maradona wasn’t welcome on that side of the Atlantic. Fast-forward three decades: A fan’s violent death in 2013 and the subsequent police crackdown provoked Argentina to ban supporters from traveling to root for their teams on the road.

And this year, a preseason “friendly” turned bloody in La Plata, just 36 miles southeast of Buenos Aires, when a player delivered a martial arts-like kick to a foe’s head. The match continued after an ambulance whisked away the seriously injured victim.

Then this past Tuesday, during a match between amateur clubs in Córdoba, 433 miles northwest of the capital, referee César Flores red-carded a player identified only as “el Pelado” for a hard foul, ejecting him from the game. Humiliated, the player stormed off, only to return within minutes and shoot Flores in the chest, neck and head before running off into the broad daylight, leaving screaming players and fans to deal with the lifeless body on the pitch. Another player, Walter Zárate, was wounded but is expected to recover. A nationwide manhunt for el Pelado is ongoing.

This all comes on the heels of last year’s attack on a referee who was beaten unconscious by a yellow-carded player. In this light, Flores’ death seems but an escalation of a most unfortunate trend.

Back in 2011, The New York Times investigated the culture of violence circling Argentina’s national pastime, focusing mainly on barra bravas – the Argentine version of English hooligans – known for threatening and even attacking players and generally creating a hostile atmosphere.

But little was written about the role that macho players themselves play in the blood sport that soccer has become in many corners of the world. With the tragedy in Córdoba, the bloody stain running through Argentina’s national pastime appears only to be growing darker.