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By Nick Dorrington

When 14-year old Kevin Beltrán Espada took his place on the terraces of the Estadio Jesús Bermúdez ahead of San José’s Copa Libertadores match against Corinthians of Brazil on the 20th February he could not have imagined that his last memory would be Corinthians opening the scoring six minutes in. A star pupil at the Edmund Bojanowski school in Cochabamba, he and his family had made the three-hour trip to Oruro to watch their beloved San José attempt to upset the competition holders.

Their innocent family trip descended into tragedy when a triumphal flare fired by the Corinthians supporter-group Gaviões da Fiel struck Kevin in the eye, killing him instantly. Handheld flares are commonplace in South America, forming an integral part of the spectacular pre-match shows by supporters of clubs such as Newell’s Old Boys of Argentina and Uruguay’s Peñarol, but this particular flare was launched from a device normally used to fire distress signals from ships.

Corinthians were immediately repentant, with teary-eyed declarations from their coach and sporting director speaking of sympathy and remorse. CONMEBOL, South American football’s governing body, acted quickly, decreeing that all of Corinthians’ subsequent home matches would be played behind closed doors and that their supporters would be banned for attending away matches for the remainder of the competition. Suddenly the club’s contrition gave way to repellent incredulity, and they threatened to pull out of the competition unless the home ban was lifted.

Corinthians played the first match of their Copa Libertadores defence in front of a near empty stadium, defeating Millonarios of Colombia in the midst of an eery silence only punctured by the exhortations of their gruff coach, Tité. A week later, CONMEBOL announced that upon further consideration they had decided to amend the sanction: supporters would be allowed to attend future home matches, but the away attendance ban was extended to 18 months and the club were fined $200,000.

CONMEBOL found themselves relatively busy in the early months of 2013 as a wave of violence has broken out across South America. Vélez Sársfield of Argentina were fined $100,000, ordered to play their home match against Peñarol behind closed doors and saw their supporters banned from attending away matches after a group of fans threw chairs and other objects at Peñarol supporters in Montevideo; Millonarios of Colombia were fined $30,000 after supporters threw objects onto the pitch during their home defeat to Club Tijuana, one of which struck a referee’s assistant; and in Argentina, Belgrano de Cordoba supporters were involved in a lengthy scuffle with police during their match away to Newell’s Old Boys.

That final incident did, however, pale in comparison to what the Argentinian authorities have held to deal with since the turn of the year. A mounting tide of violence saw images of football-gang-related barbarity and destruction become commonplace on news networks and the front and back of newspapers.

Cólon supporters intercepted and attacked a bus ferrying their River Plate counterparts home from an away fixture, while cars have been set on fire and people stabbed in an ongoing civil war within Boca Juniors’ notorious La Doce gang, with similar internecine disputes occurring at as many as seven other top flight clubs.

There was talk that the Argentinian Football Association (AFA) would look to impose a ban on away supporters, a measure previously implemented in the lower divisions, but this plan was shelved following a meeting of association officials and club presidents this past week.

One of the dissenting voices was San Lorenzo president Matias Lammens, who stated that “driving people from the stands is not the solution and they need to get to the root of the problem”. The same could be said for CONMEBOL. Fining teams and banning supporters looks good on paper and is a timely show of strength ahead of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, but does not solve the underlying problems. Poor security measures, dated infrastructure and the influence of hooligan gangs are the issues that must be dealt with to bring an end to the sea of violence.

In Bolivia, at least, the death of Kevin Beltrán has accelerated the implementation of a law introducing stricter security measures at football matches. Eye-witness accounts from the match against Corinthians indicated that away supporters, some of whom were wearing backpacks, were waved through security checks, a disclosure that has brought great shame to San José and Bolivian football as a whole.

The new law will mandate the installation of security cameras inside all stadiums—only two Bolivian venues currently have them—and put in place a series of rigourous security checks that will prevent people from bringing potentially dangerous objects into stadiums. Intoxicated fans will also be denied access. Similar laws already exist in a number of South American countries, but must be implemented with greater consistency.

The Kevin Beltrán incident also highlighted another major problem that is prevalent across the continent: the difficulty of policing old, concrete stadiums with designs that hamper attempts to deal with incidents of violence in a timely manner. It would have been too dangerous for security forces to immediately enter the stand housing the Corinthians supporters and they instead had to wait until half-time, when the crowd dispersed a little, to move in and apprehend those they believed guilty of launching the flare.

The final and perhaps most ingrained and troublesome factor is the influence the hooligan gangs —barra bravas in Argentina and the majority of the continent, and torcidas in Brazil—wield inside the clubs they support. There is often a close link between the two, with the gangs enjoying benefits such as a guaranteed ticket allocation and free transport to away matches. Club presidents have been known to call on the gangs to do their dirty work.

The gangs also often have their own entrance into the stadium that bypasses security. Under flags and banners, groups such as Boca’s La Doce create their own fiefdom within the stadium, where drugs are sold and scores settled.

Particularly in Argentina and Brazil, the gangs have obtained a position of unwarranted power that gives them an air of untouchability. A recent study by Brazilian sports daily Lance! found that in the 155 cases of deaths related to football violence in the country since 1988, the total resulting arrests numbered just 27.

With Brazil 2014 just around the corner, the current wave of violence can only be of embarrassment to CONMEBOL, but it is unlikely these incidents will effect the competition itself.

FIFA will essentially take control of the stadiums for the four weeks of the tournament, employing their own security forces and ensuring that stringent checks are carried out on all supporters attending matches. The 12 stadiums newly built or renovated for the World Cup are all designed to modern specifications, with closed-circuit television surveillance systems and easy access for security officials. With numbered seats it should be easier for perpetrators of violence to be apprehended and brought to justice.

If anything, the 2014 World Cup could act as a template for the future curbing of violence in South American football. There is little the football authorities can do to solve societal problems of violence and disorder that manifest themselves through the sport, but they can work hard to ensure that genuine supporters attending matches do not find themselves in danger. No one, not least a child, should go to watch a football match and never return. One can only hope that Kevin Beltrán’s death was not in vain.

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