When it is game day, everything changes in the city.
Team shirts appear in every neighbourhood, from the pristine $50 replicas in the fancy malls, to the locally made, one-off loose representations of the current shirt on the downtown streets.
The radio plays salsa infused homages to the local team; beers are popped open; Aguardiente (Colombian firewater) is enthusiastically forced into the hand of anyone in the vicinity who doesn’t passionately plead and resist.
The city is buzzing with excitement and anticipation.
On such an important and esteemed occasion, a community will of course look to its leaders to set an example and direct proceedings.
This is football, so the usual rules do not apply.
Your value is not measured by your bank balance, the quality of your shirt, or the comfort of your seat; you are judged on your passion, your commitment, your dedication.
If you are not going to sing until you can no longer speak, bounce until you can no longer walk, and live the joy and suffering until you are deluded, broken and cynical – then you are nothing more than a spectator.
Monday to Friday’s elites are now at the bottom; covered, comfortable, contemptible. The guy they crossed the street to avoid yesterday is now king. They marvel at his work; as fans, their reputation will be judged on the work lead by these mulleted maniacs.
In Colombia, teams are not good or bad, they are ‘grande’ (big) and ‘su papa’ (the ‘father’ of smaller teams). This means a team is judged not only on current league position, as is often the case in Europe, but principally on trophies, history, and importantly by support and stadium displays.
In the Premier League, stadiums are principally where fans go to watch football; in Colombia, stadiums are where fans represent their city, their club. Their culture.
In the most hardcore sections of the stadium, watching the game is often an unnecessary luxury. The constant movement of flags and banners, everyone around you bouncing in a sea of marijuana smoke, means you are a participant, not a spectator.
You are doing your job, sacrificing yourself for something bigger. The barras are the protagonists in this great drama, not the interested observers.
Method to the Madness
Despite often coming from the country’s poorer neighbourhoods, Colombia’s barra bravas attend games home and away all over Latin America, and thousands even made the trip to Japan for the World Club Cup final.
They plan, prepare and coordinate mass stadium displays. This can mean 45,000 fans working together to follow the instructions of the barras to lift and sometimes turn pieces of plastic, arranged and distributed by the groups.
In addition, they have flares and fireworks, as well as huge, intricately designed banners that are unravelled and retracted at key points in the game. Deportivo Independiente Medellin once had a banner made of a single piece of material that covered all four sides of a 45,000 capacity crowd.
Throughout the game, a full band with a variety of instruments will provide the backing for constant singing from the supporters. The songs do not start and stop depending on the action; their hypnotic rhythm never ends.
There is a song for every occasion: whether it is time for the referee to be reminded that his mother is a sexual miscreant, that the players require more ‘eggs’ (balls), or if the fans wish to declare their undying, passionate love for the club.
Many of the songs feature the rhythm of Argentine ballad, hence the romantic notions of dying for the club and loving self-sacrifice, with some having more traditional Colombian influences (Deportivo Cali’s modified rendition of Grupo Niche’s Cali Pachangueroa is a personal favourite).
While often maligned, Colombia’s barra bravas are truly incredible. A true embodiment of what can be achieved through bottom-up community partnerships.
Law now states that Colombian clubs cannot provide direct funding to the barras, so these incredible displays are now predominantly funded by barra-led initiatives; to be the biggest, you need to be a true business.
Los Del Sur (LDS) is the barra of the fan groups based in the south of the stadium for Atletico Nacional games. The group funds displays and trips with dozens of money-making initiatives, including selling branded LDS merchandise, operating multiple LDS-branded shops, and selling albums of studio versions of the songs heard in the stadium.
In addition, the barras are involved in selling drinks and food, selling tickets outside the stadium, and also, at times, less legitimate business ventures – drugs, prostitution, extortion, et al.
The most important barras have a defined hierarchy, with an overarching group and leadership above smaller blocks with their own leaders.
Los Del Sur is the overarching Atletico Nacional barra, and within that group there are subgroups such as Prada Verde and Mafia 89.
The overarching group will have direct links to club officials, police, and logistics groups who manage operations within the stadium.
Within the ‘popular’ sections of the stadium – areas where tickets are cheapest and the hardcore fan groups are based – there are set positions for each group. The band will be the front row of the second tier, while there are sections reserved for each block of the barra.
The more central sections are reserved for the more important and influential fan groups – keeping this spot depends upon travelling to away games, singing, and contributing to the running of the barra as a whole. It is vital that each part of the barra pulls its weight; those who don’t can lose prominence or their spot.
The barras and the logistics teams manage everything within their own section of the stadium. Logistics teams must wear different coloured shirts and are responsible for managing the lines outside the stadium, helping police as fans enter, checking for any problems in the stand, and keeping fans off the pitch.
Logistics team members are always fans themselves, who provide a relatable link for fans between themselves and the authorities.
Police check fans as they enter the stadium and have a presence around the ground before, during and after the game.
They are strongly discouraged from entering the stands, particularly the populares, as this can be inflammatory and heighten tensions; emotional, intoxicated fans can respond angrily to uniformed officers inflicting what can be perceived as ‘unjust justice’ within the areas the fans can police themselves.
Alcohol, knives and drugs are banned from Colombian stadiums, but they are always present in the ‘popular’ sections of the stadium; I recently saw two drunk fourteen-year-olds doing coke off an eight-inch knife during an Atletico Nacional game.
This week, fans of America de Cali and Deportivo Cali ended up brawling on the pitch and around their stadiums for hours after the final whistle in the Cali derby.
The incident was reportedly sparked by America fans breaking into the away section to fight with Deportivo fans. Women and non-barra Deportivo Cali members ran onto the pitch to escape the violence, and the whole system of stadium management collapsed.
This incident happened 24 hours after Colombian football authority DIMAYOR President Jorge Perdomo announced a government-led initiative to implement Taylor Report-influenced stadium reforms to improve security.
Improving Stadium Safety
Perdomo’s proposal for implementing Taylor Report-style reforms will be difficult in Colombia.
It is vitally important that the barras play a key role in this process, as they are best placed to implement the recommendations and work with the fans directly; attempting to impose new regulations on fans will create conflict, and will both negatively impact on the stadium experience and slow the intended progress.
The barras are the most effective instrument for enacting change, but also the biggest possible impediment to the process.
The number of seated sections in Colombian stadiums is increasing rapidly, which will help with stadium management. That said, within the populares, traditional seating will not be accepted – simply put, fans will not sit on them.
This means tailored solutions will have to be introduced, as is the case within the Atanasio, where the seats are only sturdy plastic squares built into the terracing – perfect for jumping on.
Within the more modern stadiums, turnstiles work fairly well, and the number of tickets allocated for each section is generally carefully managed. That said, at the smaller stadiums, there is greater possibility for counterfeit tickets, and while the stadium is split into sections, these are often huge, and overcrowded pockets is a problem.
Colombia is a long way off implementing designated seating in their stadiums. This was a key aspect of the Taylor Report, but it would be impossible in Colombia at this point in time.
The role and deployment of the police is also something that would require review. I have attended games where there have been literally more police than fans, with authorities rolling up in vehicles resembling a tank, and others where the police were massively under-resourced and actively avoiding conflict.
The former is a huge waste of money, and can turn a minor profit to a significant loss for smaller clubs, as the clubs themselves are responsible for contributing to policing costs.
With the latter, it means the police are the most vulnerable group within the stadium, and are unable to effectively do their job.
I attended a Medellin derby in the north stand with the hardcore Medellin fans. Police numbers were too low, and for this game, security checks were heightened, which meant fans would be entering the stadium late for the game.
As a response, the fans decided to push the police aside, and a wave of thousands of fans rushed into the stadium without being checked or presenting their tickets.
Changes are clearly needed, but changes must reflect and build upon existing fan culture.
The incredibly dedicated fans – and the barras who have refined their craft over generations – make for an amazing stadium experience. Steps must be made to ensure this experience is always a safe one, but authorities must tread carefully to preserve what is truly special, and ensure the collaboration of South America’s football leaders.