Hooligan gangs in Argentina have been offered trips to the World Cup finals.

When Diego Maradona took charge of Argentina’s national team last March, his training staff – lead by general manager Carlos Bilardo – enlisted a “gang” to support the team, with promises that they would be taken to the World Cup in South Africa. This group consisted mainly of past and present Boca Juniors and Estudiantes de La Plata hooligans, most of who had lengthy police records.

Following complaints after the World Cup qualifier at home to Brazil, an investigation began into how almost 3,000 people with tickets were unable to gain entry to Rosario Central’s stadium for the match while the gang went in with tickets marked “protocol” (invitation). The Argentine Football Association (AFA) claimed this was nothing to do with them – yet before the next home World Cup qualifier, against Peru, an official was reported to have left the AFA with tickets to distribute to the gang.

Not to be outdone, the government is also preparing to take hooligans to the World Cup. Their gang consists of fans from Independiente, Huracan, Velez Sarsfield, Lanus, Tigre, Rosario Central, Argentinos Juniors, Chacarita Juniors, Gimnasia y Esgrima de La Plata and Santa Fe’s Colon, with more from other clubs likely to join. Although government sources denied this at first, the truth of the matter was later confirmed by those involved.

The government has promised to take 280 hooligans to South Africa, but this may be increased to 500 if there is no further trouble at matches before the summer. Those involved must also support the government politically at stadiums, on the streets and at rallies, and at recent matches banners reading “Hinchas Unidas Argentinas” (united Argentine fans) and “Kirchner vuelve” (which calls for the return of the current prime minister, Cristina Kirchner, in the 2011 elections) have been evident.

Government officials have said they want the hooligans to become “social agents” who, instead of causing trouble, will keep order at matches. If this happens, then all well and good. But how likely is it really?

The weekend after the government offer was announced, there was fighting among hooligans at two of the 10 top-flight games. And while many of the hooligans may behave so as not to be excluded from the trip to South Africa, once they are there it could be a different story.

Added to this, don’t forget there are still a majority of hooligans from other clubs – and from the lower divisions – who are not included in the deal and, as the World Cup approaches, it is possible there will be fighting among the hooligans when it becomes apparent that not everyone will be able to go to South Africa.

No strings attached
You will note the absence of the big hooligan gangs of River Plate and Boca Juniors from the government initiative; this is because they claim to be making their own arrangements, with no strings attached, and so far Boca say they have 50 places while River have 30.

Hooligans at both clubs pressure players and other fans into giving them money and, with this also being done at other clubs, it is possible that there could be over 1,000 Argentinian hooligans going to this summer’s World Cup. At least South Africa has a very tough police force which hopefully will deal with any trouble in their particular way.

Last, but by no means least, there is the question of what will happen after the World Cup?

If the government wants the continued support of the gangs for the general election in 2011 it will have to hand out more cash (which is what the hooligans are most interested in). Yet this, along with the money it is losing since it obtained the TV rights to supposedly televise football “free for all” – which is estimated to have cost over £13.5million in the first two months – will make a huge hole in the economy. A court is investigating the misuse of public funds but, with the government involved, the case is unlikely to get very far.

Despite every top-division match being televised live for “free” on the state channel from Friday to Monday – even though a large part of the country can only see games by paying cable TV companies – there appears to be a boycott by private companies willing to buy advertising space.

Keeping the peace on the terraces, like the initiative to make televised games freely available to all, looks all set to become an increasingly expensive exercise for the powers that be in Argentina.