Ralph Hannah reports on the spectre of violence looming over the Paraguayan game.

Six games in 2011, four in just over a month, have been suspended in Paraguay due to crowd violence. The latest suspension came on last weekend’s crunch game between league leaders Libertad and title chasers Cerro Porteño, two points behind with three games to play. With Cerro Porteño leading one-nil at half time the players and officials came out ready for what was set to be a thrilling and potentially season-defining 45 minutes of football. But before the second half could begin a flare thrown from the Cerro Porteño end struck the linesman who had to leave the stadium in an ambulance.

At the moment violence reigns and it is killing Paraguayan football. Who wants to go to a game if their safety is at risk? What foreign players want to play in a league that is decided by events off the field of play? Which TV broadcaster wants to buy games that get suspended before the second half starts? It is ruining the game so many people love, but those at the top of Paraguayan football either can’t or don’t want to take action.

The four games called off in the 2011 Clausura have all come since late October – it started with relegation-threatened Luque. The fans, in protest at the club president, decided to stop a game from happening by crashing through the perimeter fence and invading the ‘preferencias’ (posh seats) to hurl objects at the director’s box. When, surprisingly, the fans were allowed in at the next fixture, the same thing happened as the ‘barra’ (the organised fans, or organised hooligans to put it frankly) invaded the pitch again and even marched down to the president’s house after the game. He promptly resigned.

On the 30th November a seemingly innocuous game between Rubio Ñu and General Caballero was suspended when a flare hit the visiting team’s goalkeeper thrown by somebody in the Rubio Ñu end. The suspect was apprehended and has since been charged by the police although he won’t go to jail, he’s under 18. It was arguably a raw deal for Rubio Ñu considering that a few days previously Cerro Porteño fans had thrown half a dozen flares onto the pitch, hospitalizing a cameraman, but that game was allowed to finish and Cerro ran out winners.

Then came the most recent incident, and despite the uproar from journalists and normal fans the messages coming from the upper echelons of Paraguayan football are depressingly similar and point to why this problem is yet to be solved. As ever the clubs, the APF and the police look to blame everybody but themselves as they try to distance themselves from any guilt. If we accept that a bottom-up revolution is highly unlikely we have to hope these three entities can work together to solve the problem of violence in Paraguayan football from the top down.

First there are the police, it is clear that they are not searching people thoroughly, after all one flare is difficult to smuggle under your clothes let alone several. There was also the staggering footage from Cerro Porteño vs Guarani; as the cameraman was hit by a flare he was surrounded by several policemen who didn’t think to glance up at the stands or even go to his aid. Throughout the game the commentators had been baffled by the lack of police presence behind the goal in the ‘graderias’ where the hooligans operate. Instead they congregated around the most expensive seats behind the dugout safe from doing any serious work. There is also the criticism that they can effectively police when the spotlight is and media pressure is on them, for example all four superclásicos between Olimpia and Cerro Porteño have passed without serious incident this year. Paraguay’s equivalent to the Home Secretary says they have sat down with the Paraguayan FA (the APF) to talk about the violence but in the classic vague language of politicians simply stated that hundreds of arrests have been made at recent football matches. How many and over what period of time nobody is quite sure.

The APF are making excellent progress in many areas of Paraguayan football, such as the organization of the national team, vastly improved youth facilities and plans for modern stadia outside of Asunción. But they  have sent out mixed messages to the recent violence. Luque for example forfeited the game but were allowed to play in front of their fans the next week yet Cerro Porteño didn’t lose any points but their fans were banned for the rest of the season. As for Rubio Ñu they don’t know if they will lose points, play behind closed doors or be fined – their case is locked in with the disciplinary committee the same committee overlooked by the APF in the case of Cerro Porteño vs Libertad. Clear laws do exist about points sanctions, but they were ignored as Libertad and Cerro Porteño were told the game could resume from the start of the second half. Incredibly Libertad refused to appeal, maybe knowing all too well that Paraguay’s two largest clubs are an immovable object when they join forces (Olimpia benefit from a Libertad defeat). The lack of clear and severe sanctions is not the root cause of violence in Paraguay obviously, but stronger leadership could provide a cure. If clubs were hit with hefty fines and points deductions they may want to take more responsibility for their fans which is the final problem I come to.

Immediately after the suspended game Cerro Porteño’s president, JJ Zapag, said “we are totally against violence” but then began to pass the buck. It began with the conspiracy theory “we don’t know if it was a Cerrista…but we know it was thrown from Cerro’s end” – planting the idea that maybe a hooligan from a rival club infiltrated the stands to launch the projectile. Far-fetched and frankly unbelievable.  Zapag heaped blame on the police “Those responsible are the Prosecutor’s Office and the Police” before reminding everybody that Cerro had done their bit “Cerro Porteño didn’t give away [for free] a single ticket to the organized ‘barra’ [hooligans]”. The claims from Cerro and Olimpia that they haven’t given away tickets to the hooligans for free is a welcome start but they don’t control the re-sale of tickets or identify hooligans to the police to stop them entering the stadium. Furthermore the case of Adolfo Trotte at Olimpia proves that the club/barra relationship is scarily similar to that of Argentina (where barras have even been deeply involved with club affairs). Trotte is in jail awaiting sentencing having been charged with the murder of his wife in July, at the time he was on the board of directors at Olimpia. The zero tolerance on free tickets is evened out by the toleration of their existence, albeit a reluctant acceptance.

There are no easy decisions, or simple steps, but there has to be collective responsibility as opposed to shifting blame, the authorities must work together because nobody should attend a football match in fear of their safety. Nobody should suffer like Gabriel Franco, the 16-year-old has been left brain damaged for life by a bullet wound to the head. Earlier this year he had been walking past Cerro Porteño’s ground with friends while on his way to watch Olimpia play nearby.

While the 2011 Clausura championship has been tainted by both the violence and the APF’s fudging of the rules, something must be done to save the future of Paraguayan football. Tighter control of who enters the ground (away fans member’s only, names on member’s tickets), tighter control on what enters the ground (thorough searches even if it means fans miss kick off time) and heavy sanctions for clubs who fail to contain crowd trouble. The APF can further help the process by demanding clubs arrange kick off times and venues more than a week before the game. Finally the police and clubs need to cooperate to identify trouble makers (after all Paraguayans are required by law to carry their ID card with them at all times).

Maybe this article won’t make an ounce of difference, but when the game was suspended I was angry and frustrated because I felt impotent to protect the game I love so much in the country I’ve fallen in love with. I feel a bit better now, as if I’ve done something.  

Ralph is a regular contributor to IBWM, and can be found on Twitter @ParaguayRalph

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AuthorRalph Hannah