Argentine Hooligans Rule Fans And Clubs

ROSARIO, Argentina -- When Argentine soccer fan "Bighead" Sergio's girlfriend got tired of his beatings and shot him to death, police found a check from his favorite team among his belongings as a legacy of his thuggish life.

A visit to the offices of local first division club Rosario Central to inquire about the $500 check opened up one of Argentine soccer's worst-kept secrets.

In enterprising contrast to their better known European counterparts, who employ their energies beating each other senseless, Argentina's own brand of soccer hooligans prefer to run protection rackets bleeding money from their own clubs. In Argentina they are known as "Barra Brava," which translates roughly as "Wild Bunch," and Bighead played a starring role in Rosario's Barra before he was killed late last year.

Bighead and his friends would come barging in to Rosario Central's clubhouse to ask officials for contributions so they could travel to support the team at games out of town.

The consequences of not paying up were clear.

When Rosario Central treasurer Roberto Munoz was away in Buenos Aires, a group of hooligans threatened to rape and murder his teenage daughter.

It was not just a matter of a few pesos for a bus trip. Munoz found that the club was handing over as much as $200,000 a year in cash, free game tickets and fares to a small group of toughs.

Everyone who has ever been to a big match in this soccer obsessed country has seen the Barra Brava. Some fans take raincoats to matches in the hot Argentine summer and stoically pay no attention when the Barra send great gobs of spittel swishing down on the seats below. Sometimes a livelier wit will urinate into a plastic bag and lob that down, too.

Club officials admit they might have created the problem. It is common knowledge that many Barras get paid to turn up at a match to chant in favor of their team and to beat drums to whip up the crowd.

Team officials were not alone in being threatened by their fans.

The Argentine national team's coach Daniel Passarella punched one fan who pestered him for money, and more recently Oscar Ruggieri, one of Argentina's most successful soccer players, admitted paying off the Barra.

One of the few alleged soccer hooligans to be in prison is the most notorious, Jose Barritta. The beer-bellied Barritta is being tried on charges of running a hooligan mafia.

Barritta's lawyer says his client is innocent of all charges and earned his money working with his mother.