Bespectacled and a little pudgy, with the amiable features of a trusty family accountant, Javier Cantero does not radiate a sense of overwhelming charisma or bravery. Yet the recently-elected president of Independiente, one of Argentina's most popular football clubs, has taken it upon himself to almost single-handedly confront the menacing barra bravas; the hooligan gangs who run mafia-like operations from the terraces of stadia across the country.

Cantero was voted in as president of Independiente in December, 2011 with over 60% of members’ votes on the back of a campaign denouncing violence and promising an end to the close ties between club authorities and the barra brava groups. Riding the momentum of his decisive victory, Cantero reiterated his anti-hooligan stance. He immediately announced that the club would no longer financially support the activities of these groups.

The somewhat bemusing reaction of the head of Independiente’s barra brava, Pablo “Big Baby” Álvarez, was to hand in his resignation to Cantero. The new president was obviously unable to accept the resignation of a person who had no official position within the club, had not been democratically elected by anybody and conducted the majority of his activities outside of the bounds of legality.

In order to appreciate how such an absurd scenario could arise, an understanding of the operational structure of barra brava gangs across Argentinian football is needed.

The barra bravas, who usually number no more than a couple of hundred members, even at major clubs, wield massive influence over the institutions they claim to support; offering backing to club presidents in exchange for large financial rewards in the form of free tickets to games, which are then sold on for profit, control of food and drink sales at the grounds, control of parking around the stadium and even cash gifts in order to purchase flags, flares and streamers. Some barra brava groups even receive percentages of players’ transfer fees when multi-million dollar moves to overseas clubs take place.

The barra bravas are not only influential over internal club politics, but are often linked to provincial and national politicians as well. Argentinian football’s governing body, the Asociación del Fútbol Argentino (AFA), has done next to nothing to curb the power of the gangs. The President of AFA, Julio Grondona, has been in power for 33 years, during which time the violence surrounding football has only increased. Of the 262 football-related deaths since 1924 in Argentina, 162 have occurred on Grondona’s watch. There have been four fatalities so far in 2012, the latest of which was Sergio Victor Fernández, a fan of Newell’s Old Boys who was shot dead by Union barra bravas after the two local rivals played each other on May 12.

The AFA President will occasionally speak out against the power of the barra bravas, but actual change has seemed an unlikely prospect, at least until the emergence of Cantero. In April, 2010, Grondona told a group of politicians belonging to the Sports Commission that, “the barras are used in football and in politics. It’s big business.” He went on to blame ‘Executive Power’ for the problem.

“The first step is for club directors to stop dealing with the entrance tickets and the current protocols – if it is even possible to take them away from the barras, because this is already a business. It’s not as though they give them the tickets to get in to the stadium; they sell them and then enter for free. So we are going to speak clearly about this, because there is not one club director who, if approached by a barra brava, won’t give him match tickets,” he said.

Strong words indeed, yet in June of the same year, a combined group of barra bravas from different clubs, under the name Hinchadas Unidas Argentinas (Argentina Fans United) travelled to the World Cup in South Africa on the same flight as the Argentina team and its delegation. Julio Grondona denied claims made in many media outlets that the AFA had in fact paid the hooligans’ passage to the tournament. His attempts to disassociate AFA from the nefarious individuals were not helped by revelations that shirts and other merchandise that they intended to sell during the competition were stored at the delegation’s headquarters, or that a representative of the group, Hernán Palavecino, sat in on an official Argentina press conference and was also photographed with his arm around a smiling Grondona.

Big monetary incentives mean big stakes, and violence often rears its head as factions within the barra bravas fight for control of the money-spinning operations. Guns, knives and drugs are regularly confiscated off groups travelling to and from games by police, but it is clear that many weapons and illegal substances slip through unchecked. Regular fans have long dismayed over the situation. The threat of violence at and around stadia makes attending matches an uninviting prospect for many regular supporters. Meanwhile, inept (or complicit) police officials offer little in the way of a solution.

In this footage, one faction of the Boca Juniors barra brava is shown arriving at the Bombonera stadium (Boca’s home ground) for a match against Atlético Rafaela in 2011. Grey-haired Rafael Di Zeo had recently been released from prison after serving four years for aggravated assault. The former leader of Boca’s infamous barra brava, known as ‘La 12’, waves his entry ticket in the air triumphantly; this is his first home game after leaving prison and he is back to reclaim leadership of the group from the man who took over in his absence, Mauro Martin. Many others in Di Zeo’s party pass through the gates without showing a ticket, nor are they searched by security or the police. One federal policeman smiles and pats Di Zeo on the back as the gang floods through the gate, La 12 capos themselves waving through whomever they deem eligible to enter the stadium. During the match, the Di Zeo and Martin blocs took up positions in different sectors of the ground, chanting death threats to each other and making throat-cutting gestures. The leadership situation of La 12 remains unresolved, and the risk of warfare between the rival factions remains high.

The situation at Boca Juniors is hardly unique. Incidents of hooliganism are reported with depressing monotony in the news. River Plate fans famously tore apart their own stadium and the surrounding neighborhood when their club was relegated to the Second Division for the first time ever last June after several years of poor performances. A San Lorenzo player, Jonathan Bottinelli, was attacked by three barra bravas after a training session in October. Angered at a perceived lack of effort from the team, the heavies were unmolested as they entered the training facilities and assaulted the player. This season, Second Division team Instituto de Cordoba were flying high at the top of the table and looking certain to be promoted to the top flight, but a run of bad form was deemed unacceptable by the club’s barra bravas, who last week threatened to kill the players if they do not gain promotion at season’s end. In recent days, Racing’s star Colombian midfielder, Giovanni Moreno was stopped as he left training in his car. Barra bravas held a gun to his leg and told him if he didn’t leave the club they would end his career.  

The physical menace imposed by these hooligans, and the fact their operations are so deeply ingrained within the fiber of Argentinian football culture and society itself, makes the stand Javier Cantero is taking against them all the more laudable. Earlier this month, when the Independiente president refused to allow the group to continue storing their banners at the club’s stadium, about 30 barra bravas marched into his office to demand retribution. Cantero was not harmed, though he and other club officials were subjected to threats and insults.

“The majority of people are against them, and I represent those people. I’m afraid, I’m not crazy. But they are not going to twist my arm because they came into my office,” Cantero told Central Fox.

“It’s not true that you cannot fight them, but sometimes there is no desire to,” he said.

Following the incidents in his office, Cantero requested that police ban several of the group’s leaders from attending Independiente’s next game at Arsenal de Sarandi’s stadium. The match was interrupted for some minutes as, in response, those men and their cohorts threw rocks and bricks into the ground from outside. The following week, a bomb hoax was phoned in to the Independiente elementary school, which operates as a part of the club, and various administrators received death threats in the mail. The second vice-president of the club has taken a month’s leave after his daughters begged him to walk away from the club for fear of his safety.

Though Cantero has received some verbal backing from other teams’ presidents and the AFA, the response from officialdom has generally been lukewarm. No other club has yet followed Cantero’s lead by taking similar steps to eradicate the barra bravas. On May 22, Cantero spoke with exasperation at the lack of real action from his counterparts, singling out Boca president Daniel Angelici.

“He manages a club where the thugs are treated differently to ours,” he told Radio La Red. “At Independiente the barra is renounced, at Boca they pose for photos and sign autographs.”

The general football-loving public’s reaction, on the other hand, has been of overwhelming support. #FuerzaCantero (Strength Cantero) was trending worldwide on Twitter within hours of the storming of his office. On May 11, hundreds of Independiente fans marched to the club’s headquarters in an expression of encouragement for the President, and to direct anger at the hooligans who have hijacked the sport for personal gains. Since February, Independiente has gained more than 12,000 members, an influx that indicates Cantero has captured the public’s imagination. Fans of other clubs too have expressed solidarity and begun to demand, through banners and chants at matches, that their own presidents act against the violence.

The hooligans, however, are hardly going to sit by and watch their livelihoods disappear. On the same day as the pro-Cantero march, the head of the Independiente barra brava, Pablo Álvarez, gave a press conference in the high-end Buenos Aires neighborhood of Puerto Madero. The group’s lawyer was present, as was spokesman Hernán Palavecino, the same man who travelled to the World Cup with Julio Grondona and the Argentina national team. “Big Baby”revealed he had started legal proceedings against Cantero for slander. Though the threat of legal action is most likely an idle one, the very fact that a group of football thugs can hold a press conference attended by dozens of journalists, flanked by lawyers and associates of high-ranking officials, demonstrates the sense of entitlement they have after so many years of running their thinly-disguised extortion racket with virtual impunity.

Javier Cantero may look like a nice guy, but he will need to tap into all his inner reserves of ruthless determination if he is to emerge victorious from the ominous battle ahead.

You can follow Dan on Twitter @ArgentinaFW and hear him regularly on the peerless Hand of Pod.