Soccer in Argentina: The latest death in a sick society

The killing of a Belgrano supporter has revealed the darker side of one of the country’s great passions

Carlos E. Cué

Emanuel Balbo died hearing the worst insult that a Belgrano soccer club fan could possibly hear: “He’s a Talleres supporter!” That team is the archrival. Emanuel, 22, was a typical youngster from the Argentinean suburbs, where nearly everything revolves around soccer. “He was always clowning around, he was very friendly,” explains his father, Raúl. He wasn’t a hooligan. Nor was he a regular in the most problematic section of the Mario Alberto Kempes stadium in Córdoba, Argentina.

Emanuel Balbo is pushed from the stand.
Emanuel Balbo is pushed from the stand.AP

“He and his friend Lucas, who has a four-year-old kid, always got seats in the platea [lower seating section] so they could take it easy. But the Belgrano-Talleres clásico derby match was on that day, and he couldn’t find a spot there, so he went up to the popular [higher section].” He ended up in the Willington stand, one of the more problematic sections of the stadium but certainly not the worst.

He started to shout: “This asshole is from Talleres, grab him!” He didn’t have to do anything else

Ever since another violent death among Argentinean soccer fans four years ago, fans of teams playing away have not been allowed to attend games. In theory there was no danger for Balbo, better known to his friends as Keko. But that day, he happened to see Óscar Gómez, aka “Sapito.” They knew each other well.

Back in 2012, Sapito and a friend were racing each other in their cars in the early hours of the morning in the neighborhood where the Balbos lived. One of Keko’s younger brothers, Agustín, aged 14, was riding a motor scooter with a 15-year-old friend. In the middle of their race, at a speed of more than 100km/h, Sapito and his friend ran over both youngsters, killing them. “Sapito was in jail for a month, after that they let him go, and he was behaving as if nothing had happened,” explains Raúl Balbo. “I’ve seen him around, he made light of the whole thing, and never apologized.”

The day of the soccer game, Sapito and Keko bumped into each other in the upper part of the stand, and that’s when tensions flared. Sapito had an idea. He started to shout: “This asshole is from Talleres, grab him!” He didn’t have to do anything else. He didn’t even need to get into a fight. The mob did the dirty work. They started to beat Keko all over his body. Terrified and suffering from more and more injuries, he tried to escape via one of the exits. But the blows continued to rain down on him, and he went over the edge of the stand, falling down on to the concrete stairs below. The head injuries he suffered from the fall saw him dead two days later.

Video footage of the incident.

While he lay there bleeding, dozens of soccer fans carried on hurling insults at him, forcing the police to protect his inert body. Seven people were arrested. This time around, it seems like the justice system is swinging into action. “Right now, five years later, they’ve given me the date for the trial for the death of my other son,” explains the victim’s father. “What a coincidence. I had to lose another son before they would deal with the first one.”

Nearly everything in Argentina can be connected to soccer. Even the country’s president, Mauricio Macri, comes from that world: for 12 years he successfully ran the Boca Juniors team, which gave him the fame he needed to make the leap to politics. That explains why the general feeling is that this isn’t an isolated problem, but rather one that has deep roots, and affects all of society.

“The most serious part of this case is that the protagonists are not [from the radical hooligan group],” explains Gustavo Grabia, an Argentinean journalist who has done a lot of research into the problem of violence in Argentinean soccer. “None of them had a record. They are just normal supporters. That’s not the worst part of the stadium. This case serves to further underscore what a sick society this is. They didn’t shout, ‘He’s a thief, he stole my wallet!’ but rather, ‘He’s a Talleres supporter!’ Most people who go to the stadiums think that the guy wearing a different shirt from you is an enemy who needs to be exterminated.”

The most serious part is that the protagonists are not from the radical hooligan group

Argentinean journalist Gustavo Grabia

Three days after Balbo’s death, Talleres played against Independiente in the same stadium. As a gesture toward the rejection of violence, before the game started the players from Belgrano and Talleres came out together onto the pitch and held up a banner that read: “We are not enemies.” The whistling of disapproval from the crowd was deafening. The hardcore Talleres fans were not willing to applaud the Belgrano players, and vice versa. Not even the death of Balbo had helped tone down the hatred.

It is true that this latest killing, which has been watched over and over again thanks to the multiple cameras that recorded the incident, has prompted a strong reaction in the country. But it’s very likely that it will happen again. “I have three more children,” says Keko’s father. “One of them is four years old. What’s going to happen when she’s 20? Are they going to kill another one of mine? Where is this country headed?” No one is willing to answer that worrying question.

English version by Simon Hunter.

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