4 June ~ Much has been written of late already about the sanity, or lack thereof, to be found in the mind of the manager of the Argentine national football team. WSC has also asked at times this year whether the security authorities have entirely the right idea about how to deal with the violent elements within Argentina's football supporters. So it should come as no surprise to learn that, when the selección flew from Buenos Aires to Johannesburg last Friday on a public South African Airways flight, 22 "official" barra bravas were on the same aeroplane.
Julio Grondona, the president of the Argentine FA (AFA) and one of FIFA's most senior vice-presidents, claimed to know nothing of it. Few in the press seem to believe him. Diego Maradona, national team general co-ordinator Carlos Bilardo and Luis Segura – a vice-president of the AFA and the most senior figure on the flight – all separately told the press that they hadn't been informed by Grondona or anyone else of the barras' presence, even though two of them were said to have attempted to have photos taken with the squad. Bilardo told Olé: "When I heard there were barras on the flight, the first thing I asked was whether there were any from [Bilardo's old club] Estudiantes. When they told me no, I breathed again – because if there had been, [the press] would all have said I'd helped them."
Grondona, who flew separately from the squad a couple of days later, insisted that the economy class section of the flight had been available to the public as normal, and that the AFA had nothing to do with the fans in question being present. This was in spite of the fact that one of the barras, Ariel "El Gusano" (The Worm) Pugliese, acted as an AFA-approved bodyguard for no less than Lionel Messi on one of his visits to Argentina in 2009.
Several of the group – who are largely made up of Chacarita Juniors barras and members of a small faction of Boca Juniors' infamous La Doce – have been known to Maradona and Bilardo since the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, and for that reason the technical team came under fire. When Maradona gave his first press conference on South African soil on Tuesday, he insisted: "I don't know any of these people. If any barra wants to get famous – well, he's going to have to work for it."
There had already been some embarrassment by that point when, two days after the squad arrived in Pretoria, a group congregated outside the High Performance Centre where the selección are ensconced to demand the return of two large bags of luggage which the baggage handlers had accidentally forwarded on to the national team's quarters rather than their rightful owners, the barras.
Tensions will only grow when a group of 250 barras from other clubs, sponsored by an NGO, Hinchadas Unidas Argentinas, arrive in the coming week, They all knew it couldn't be dull with Diego Maradona in charge. But even if he weren't there, the leadership of Julio Grondona et al continues to ensure sleepless nights for many decent Argentine fans. Sam Kelly