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Argentine soccer hooligans offered World Cup vacation

By Chris Murphy and Brian Byrnes, CNN
  • Argentine hooligans are being offered free trips to the World Cup in South Africa
  • The deal is through an NGO who want a reduction in football violence in return
  • Argentina's government has been linked but strenuously denies any involvement
  • Pro-government banners have been visible at recent games in Argentina

Buenos Aires, Argentina (CNN) -- Soccer has long been a bloody business in Argentina, but 2010 has proved particularly violent with five deaths linked to the so-called "beautiful game."

Among the dead were two former bosses of hooligan gangs -- known locally as Barra Brava -- associated with clubs in the northern city of Rosario, but the most high-profile was policeman Sergio Rodriguez.

Rodriguez was shot in the head as he tried to separate fighting fans of Estudiantes and Argentinos Juniors in the city of La Plata, according to Telam, the official Argentine government news agency.

A solution has long been sought to end the bloodshed that for years has plagued Argentina's terraces, but when news emerged of a scheme to offer up to 500 of the country's most notorious hooligans free trips to the World Cup in South Africa, it was met with widespread criticism.

When the government was implicated, that criticism turned to disbelief.

The idea was the brainchild of a non-government organization called Hinchadas Unidas Argentinas (Argentine Fans United) who claimed the scheme would reduce violence by bringing fans together.

The link with the government was seemingly given credence when prominent HUA figure Marcelo Mallo -- a man who previously campaigned for former Argentina president Nestor Kirchner, the husband of current incumbent Cristina -- claimed fans from the barra could become "tools at the government's disposal" through their activity with the NGO.

Despite the appearance of banners calling for the re-election of Cristina Kirchner at prominent matches, the government steadfastly denied involvement by telling CNN there is "no connection whatsoever."

However, prominent pressure group Salvemos al Futbol (Let's Save Football) -- a fans organization committed to increasing transparency and reducing violence in the game -- is convinced the government and the HUA are entwined.

The hooligans have always been involved in trouble at the World Cup. Why would we believe they'll behave now?
--Monica Nizzardo

Mallo has been keeping a low profile after suggesting the HUA's offer of World Cup trips had a political motivation.

But Emiliano Tagliarino, a spokesman for HUA, and a member of the Huracan barra told CNN: "At one point we wanted to get close to the Kirchner government, but they didn't want to have anything to do with us. Politics doesn't interest us. I'm not looking to get elected. What interests us is stopping violence in football.

"Marcelo Mallo is not involved in every aspect of our organization. He is not there in the stands with us at the stadiums every week. He helps us with the legal side of things; he helped us secure our office. But the people who are in charge of HUA are us -- the fans like me."

Pablo Paladino, Undersecretary of the Argentina National Department of Football Security, was unequivocal when he spoke to CNN.

"There is absolutely no connection whatsoever between the hooligans and the state," he said. "The Argentine government has never even considered the idea of sending members of the Argentine Fans United (HUA) to the World Cup in South Africa.

"I consider it impossible that any group except the government be in charge of guaranteeing security at football matches here.

"I really don't see how this group [HUA] can claim to be working to stopping violence when we see some of their members causing problems at the stadiums every week. What they say they want to do is one thing, but what we see them doing every weekend is different."

Mallo originally claimed that up to 500 football fans could benefit from the paid-for trips, but HUA now says between 80 and 100 fans are going and that "each is paying his own way."

The confusion is a familiar scenario according to Monica Nizzardo, president of Salvemos al Futbol. She told CNN that her group was "very concerned" about HUA.

"The Argentinean government has given them a place in their political structure. One of HUA's leaders has been quite clear about that.

"There is absolutely no connection whatsoever between the hooligans and the state.
--Pablo Paladino, Argentina National Department of Football Security

"The hooligans have always been involved in trouble at World Cups in various host countries. Why would we believe they'll behave now? They don't even do that here -- despite the pact they signed to get the trip in the first place.

"We are working with the relevant governmental organizations -- but unfortunately it doesn't really seem that there is a strong political will to tackle violence in football."

Paladino disagrees and says the government is now implementing "technology" that will allow it to better identify those who misbehave at football matches.

He also pointed out that the government cannot employ the same measures to prevent known hooligans from traveling abroad for matches as countries like the UK can.

He explained: "In Argentina, the only way we can legally prevent a hooligan from traveling to South Africa is if a judge orders him detained or if he is already involved in a legal proceeding. But we don't have the authority to take away the passports of hooligans."

One person who has been enlisted by the government to help tackle the problem is behavioral scientist Otto Adang, chair of public order management for the Dutch Police academy.

He has been working in Argentina for six years, but admits the complex nature of Argentinean football violence makes it a difficult beast to tame.

He told CNN: "We have to look at all the links -- the links between politicians and clubs and fans. Other interests are the money that is involved and the links that exist between different parties involved, which make the problem in Argentina much more complex. Argentina needs a tailor-made solution because it is a unique problem."

Adang did express his concerns over HUA's proposed World Cup deal, though. "It doesn't sound like a very good idea at all," he said.