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Barra brava (fierce gang) is the name of organised supporters groups of football teams in Latin America, similar to hooligan firms, torcidas organizadas (exclusive of Brazil) and ultras. Their behavior is characterized by its fervor and violence. It includes standing through the match, singing, jumping, throwing firecrackers, playing bass drums and waving flags, aimed to support players of its team; and insulting, spitting and throwing objects to intimidate referees and rival players and fans, eventually provoking fights against them and riots. They also defend the rest of their team's crowd from the attacks of rival fans and police repression.
During the 1920s, groups of Argentine football fans that stood out for their fervor from the rest of the crowd in the stadiums spontaneously began to appear. These groups were denominated as barras by the media, a term that in Argentina and Uruguay is equivalent to the term gang, but in it original meaning (not necessarily associated to crime), that is an informal group of people (usually friends) who meet regularly. One of those groups, named as La barra de la Goma ("The barra of the rubber") by press, was created in 1927 and supported San Lorenzo de Almagro. The nickname comes from the rubber of bike inner tubes (filled with sand, and tied with wire at the ends) that this group used to attack rival fans. Sometimes also throwed objects to rival team's players to bother them when they should intervene in the game.[clarification needed]
Actions of this groups were limited to stadiums during home matches, and they couldn't follow (at least the complete groups) their teams to other cities very often neither intend to provoke violence, as it arose spontaneously usually during games that were difficult for their team as a way to influence the game through intimidation of rival players and referees with insults and throwing of blunt objects. They also intimidated rival fans who tried to bother players of their team and occasionally entered to the pitch (playing field) to assault opposing players. At the end of this decade, a few newspapers described one of this groups as a barra "brava" (Spanish for fierce), appearing the words barra brava togheter for the first time, but not yet like a term.
The barras became a traditional part of the Argentine football crowds and evolved until, in the mid-1950s, they started to receive financing from the football clubs to attend every away matches. Their goals expanded to include provoking violence against rival players and fans, repelling police repression and defending the club players and crowd from attacks of rival supporters. They thus became the first organised violent football supporter groups in the world.
Argentine journalist Amílcar Romero stated that, before the appearance of such groups, when a team played away, were intimidated by rival fans. Barras bravas were a response to this pressure, so each club started to had its own barra brava, financed by the club leadership. These groups were given tickets and paid travel to the stadiums, and access to these benefits were controlled by the group's main members. To obtain prestige, the member had to be violent.
In Argentine football it was institutionalised that, if you played away, you were pressured inexorably. Although it was not about barras bravas as we know them today. Home fans pressured you and, police, if was not watching to another place, also pressured you. That had to be compensated with a theory that in the next decade (the 1950s) was rife: to every operating group with a mystical ability to produce violence, the only way to counter it is with another minority group, with as much or more mystique to produce violence.— Amílcar Romero.
In 1958, media has begun to notice the existence of barras bravas after the riots during a match between Vélez Sarsfield and River Plate (at José Amalfitani stadium), at which 18-year-old Alberto Mario Linker was killed by police (he was hit in the head by a tear gas grenade) when cops tried to disperse River Plate fans who were causing unrest. Press (newspaper La Razón) denominated River Plate's barra as a barra fuerte (strong gang), differentiating them for the first time from the traditional barras.
Barra brava as the currently term appeared in Argentine media in the 1960s, but became popular in the 1980s. Barra brava's members until early 1990s rejected that term (many even today) for consider it pejorative, and prefer being denominated as fanbanse/crowd's referents.
Although since the beginings of Argentine football there were many fights and riots carried out by fans, players, club's leaders and police (with the first registered death caused by violence in 1923), the Alberto Mario Linker's death was signaled as the beginning of an era of habituation to violence. During the following decades, riots and deaths increased at the same time that barras bravas turned more numerous and organised.
According to some studies, Argentina has the most dangerous organised supporter groups in the world. Through August 2012 Argentine football has experienced more than 200 deaths related to hooliganism. In 2013 all visiting fans were banned from matches. Since 2000s, several deaths were the result of incidents between rival factions within barras bravas with two or more subgroups fighting for lead it.
These groups display and wave flags (that in Argentine football slang are called trapos -cloths-) and umbrellas (with team's colours), and use musical instruments (such as drums and, since the mid-2000s, trumpets) to accompany their chants. They occupy terraces where viewers must stand, while in all-seater stadiums (rare in Argentina and many other Latin American countries), barras bravas also remain stand throughout the match.
The most characteristic flags are shaped like giant strips several meters in length (called trapos largos -long cloths- or tirantes -suspenders-), that are deployed from the top of the terrace to the bottom. Each group usually also have a flag with it name.
Traditionally, many members (usually important ones) stand upon the crush barriers that are placed in terraces to prevent crushing (even though some common fans also do it, but not in the center ones). To not fall from there, they hold on from a "suspender" (this was the purpose to make this flags shaped like strips), the body of someone else that is by his side and sustained to the flag, or the hand of some supporter that is standing below (in the floor).
They start and coordinate every chant, wave the most important and big flags and always are located in the center of the terrace that occupy. Until the group enters to the terrace (usually a few minutes before or sometimes after the match starting), the center isn't occupped by the crowd (even if the terrace it is almost filled), being left empty to show respect to the barra brava place.
Originally these groups were not very numerous or powerful. Over the years, this changed to the point of cases where the barra brava decided who would be the club's chairman. Since the 1980s and 1990s, hooliganism has grown and some groups engaged in illegal activities such as extorting money from club leadership, players, and hawkers that work at the stadium and surroundings, sell tickets (that are given by club leaders) to matches in the black market, etc. It members also may participate in drug sales and thefts in their private lives. They often provide services to political and union leaders who hire them as agitator groups (during rallies and mass meetings, that in Argentina traditionally have people chanting like football crowds, playing drums and even shooting firecrackers), goon squads (clashing with supporters of other political parties, unions or police during demonstrations, protests, rallies and strikes), bodyguards, etc.
They are funded also by club leadership, which may give salaries to some members or even a percentage of the profits. Also, when the stadium of some club is used for a non-football event, usually the club's barra brava members are employed as security guards to take care of the installations.
In Argentina, since 2000s, a large percentage of deaths related to football were related to internal disputes within barras bravas, emerging subgroups into it that sometimes even had it own names.
The size of a barras brava is generally related to the level of the club's popularity. However, some clubs have big supporter groups without being very popular. This usually occurs when the club has, at least, a relatively high popularity in a high populated working class zone of an urban area. Group sizes range from a dozen of members in very small clubs, to more than a thousand in important ones, all them with a strong hierarchical structure.
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