Argentina’s FA has commandeered former hooligans to support the national team.

Eric Weil in Buenos Aires
As if it wasn’t bad enough that Argentina’s club officials support and finance hooligan gangs – the “barras bravas” – whose existence has long threatened the credibility of the domestic game, the Argentinian Football Association has now got in on the act, too.

The national team’s coaching staff, for which the FA is responsible, has been instrumental in forming a gang to “support” the team. The gang is composed mostly of former members of the Boca Juniors and Estudintes de La Plata gangs, many with long police records and some jail terms.

The FA may claim that it is not directly involved, but it supplied 400 free tickets for the gang while the real fans had to wait long in queues and pay good money for tickets for the recent Argentina-Venezuela World Cup qualifier in Buenos Aires.

The gang’s presence was evident at the match in the packed River Plate stadium but was hardly necessary as the national team received more vocal support than ever for their first home match under coach Diego Maradona. But there will be worse to come. The gang will press spectators, players and others for travelling expenses, especially with next year’s World Cup finals approaching. Assuming, of course, that Argentina qualify.

For the 1986 World Cup, when current general manager Carlos Bilardo was head coach, the team also had its own hooligan gang – both during the qualifiers and at the finals in Mexico. But its members hailed from various club gangs and were never organised by the FA.

The euphoria caused by Argentina’s 4-0 home win against Venezuela disappeared a few days later when they crashed 6-1 in the 3,200-metres altitude of La Paz.

Maradona must take most of the blame. A staunch supporter of playing at altitude, he played an exhibition match there in March 2008 after FIFA’s latest attempt to ban international games above 2,500 metres. Then, Maradona’s support had more to do with his affinity with leaders such as Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Cuba’s Fidel Castro, as well as his opposition to FIFA.

At the end of that match, in which he had only trotted, Maradona said: “People should be allowed to play where they are born”. But his comments were compromised somewhat by the difficulty he had in speaking. He could hardly get the words out for lack of breath.

So, having nailed his colours so firmly to the mast, he could hardly demand that his players be treated differently. Instead, ahead of the game in La Paz, he drummed into them not to be afraid of altitude.

Nor did Maradona change tactics, even though Juan Roman Riquelme, hounded out of the national team, might have slowed down the rhythm and organised play the way it should be done at altitude.