Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Politics of Football

Football clubs are organized like corporations. They collect funds from their season pass holders (socios), and in turn these socios have the right to vote on the principal decisions of the club. The dynamic is very similar to that of shareholders in a company.

The main difference is that investors can buy more than one share in a company, whereas a football fan is usually only a socio for himself. That would seem to imply that all socios have equal influence. Not true. In big and important football clubs, there are a group of socios who have tremendous power and influence. In Argentina, they're known as the barras bravas.

The barras bravas are the violent sector of the football club's fans. They are the ones who yell vulgar insults, or the ones who beat up the other team's fans after losing a match, or the ones who place bullets in the front seat of the players' cars after a poor performance. The barras bravas are especially notorious for their practice of cuidacoches, which involves extorting money out of people who park their cars at the stadium so that they can "take care of their cars" (i.e. have them not steal it).

Among the barras bravas, there are one or two leaders (never more, for reasons we will see later), who are probably the most powerful figures in the club. Their power stems from their ability to round up large numbers of votes among the barras bravas, either because they are charismatic, or because they are well-known in the neighborhood, or because they have a lot of contacts through trafficking goods. As a result, even if the leader just has one vote himself, through this process of rounding up votes he effectively makes himself a majority stakeholder.

The leader of the barras bravas is a key player in the internal politics of the club. For example, if the club hires a technical director that the other directors don't like, they can have the leader move the barras bravas against the technical director and get him ousted. The president himself can encourage the leader to have the barras bravas put bullets in the players' cars during practice if they don't perform well.

To keep the leaders of the barras bravas on their side, the presidents of football clubs buy them off: all-expenses paid travel with the team; access to all practices; 300 tickets, to be sold at 30x the retail price—being the leader of the barras bravas is clearly a lucrative business. There is a reason, though, why the barras bravas only ever have a few leaders at a time: there is so much money and power at stake that the leaders use any means necessary to maintain their position. Threats, blackmail, and murder are all part of the gig.

The grass of la cancha is so clean and immaculate. It betrays nothing about the people who work to put the spectacle together.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Maybe Not a Leap Forward for Mankind, but At Least a Quantum Leap for Me

I don't know about you, but I don't find myself learning, as they say we should, one new thing everyday. I try to keep my mind open for learning at all times, but alas the actual act of learning seems to be more the providence of Fortune and the Gods than me—for as much as you may struggle to understand something, there's no guarantee that the concept will sink in, that it will penetrate the soft, fleshy cerebral membrane and become part of your bones (I have a deep conviction that all true knowledge resides in your bones; the rest is fluff to impress, or soups of facts that we regurgitate mindlessly).

That is to say, my knowledge doesn't seem to grow gradually and steadily, but rather in quantum leaps of tiny epiphanies. The thing—the problem, you could say—with epiphanies is that no matter how small they are, they bring such a burst of clarity that it's easy to forget how private and personal the whole experience is. You walk outside after an epiphany and the blue sky suddenly feels more blue and humanity seems somehow more enlightened and less hopeless. It's hard not to think of the experience as anything other than a leap forward for mankind.

Well, in true postmodern fashion, I think I've had an epiphany about epiphanies, and this one (unlike the others, which were more like lighting bolts of Zeus) can be pinpointed back to its source: writing this blog.

I'd always be on the lookout for topics for this blog (which, for some reason, always seemed to come to me in the shower), and the little epiphanies I had seemed like exciting and worthwhile stuff. But when it came to putting those thoughts to blog, I'd always have a problem of recreating that excitement and novelty of discovery. I'd work it around, try this or that, but it'd just end up sounding like common sense, nothing knew, stuff that everyone knew, constantly begging the question: what took you so long?

I don't think this necessarily reflects on my writing skills, but rather shows how the epiphanies that I thought were news for humanity were in reality just news for me (I hear a unison chant from the world of "what took you so long?"). But you know, that's fine. The thrill is still the same, and I still see the sky more blue.

P.S. The astute critic may have noted that this blog post itself seems to treat this epiphany about epiphanies as news to the world; which would make it seem as if I haven't learned my lesson after all. I assure this critic that my purpose is no longer didactic but confessional and self-disciplining, and if it benefits anyone else, all the better. (But to be truly honest, that didactic bug is hard to shake off.)