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Mar 25, 2011

Another death stains Argentine football

Followers of the Argentine top flight had a crazy few days of football at the weekend, with four legitimate goals disallowed in different matches and a veritable bloodbath on the pitch at Boca Juniors, who saw one player get his jaw broken and another laid out cold and stretchered off in a neck brace - both entirely accidentally.

All of it, however, paled in comparison with the biggest story of the weekend, one that put everyone's complaints of refereeing injustice or relegation worries into sharp perspective.

On Sunday, Velez Sarsfield were hosting San Lorenzo de Almagro. The two clubs aren't traditional rivals but have, over the last few years especially, had to contend with a very heated atmosphere whenever they've played. One San Lorenzo fan got into an altercation during a routine police security check (most accounts seem to agree on that) and then ... well, and then things get a bit murky. Buenos Aires' Federal Police spokesman, Nestor Rodriguez, told the press that "he sat down on the kerbside, suffered a cardiac arrest, and died".

The director of emergency services, meanwhile, told everyone that the dead man - a 36-year-old by the name of Ramon Aramayo - had suffered various bruises around the chest area. By the end of the day, a video was circulating on the websites of sports daily Olé and newspaper Clarín (both part of the same media group) of the police picking up and leading Aramayo - clearly still alive - away from the fans milling towards the stadium and, although the video cuts off before they go out of sight, apparently through the doorway of a warehouse or garage.

If the police version of events was already looking more than a little shaky after this, they could certainly have done without Aramayo's widow then appearing in front of the nation's media and announcing, through floods of tears, "the police killed my husband". The autopsy, the results of which were released on Monday, stated that Aramayo died from swelling in his cerebrum and lungs, and that he had definitely been hit, but that said blows may not have been the direct cause of death.

Reasons for wanting to keep officialdom free of blame are plain, and even more so when one considers that Argentina isn't a place where people generally hold authority figures in high regard. Even among ex-pats who've been brought up in countries without records of official corruption and heavy-handed policing, I've heard it said here in Buenos Aires more than once that the police don't help themselves in this respect. Aramayo's is the first football-related death in Argentina since the Ministry of Security set up a team with the express aim of clamping down on football violence.

An independent body has been set up to investigate, so that the police aren't investigating themselves over the affair. It's a sharp reminder that, for all of the unwanted power and influence they wield, and for all that they can make Argentine stadia thoroughly nervous places to visit for the uninitiated, the barra bravas aren't the cause of all the football-going public's ills. Aramayo was just a normal fan, and the people who beat him - because whether he was directly killed by the blows or not, the coroner's report does confirm that the blows were landed - weren't barras, but police.

It's interesting, too, that it should happen at Velez, a club where fan safety arrangements have been put somewhat into the spotlight recently. A week prior to Aramayo's death, Velez played away at River Plate, and from the stands I saw a number of banners dedicated to Walter Paz, a young River fan who suffered a heart attack in the middle of the terraces during his team's visit to Velez last September, and died when the emergency services were unable to react quickly enough to save him. One of the banners mocked Velez's self-appointed place at the forefront of the Argentine game off the pitch, one sarcastically asking, "Velez: a model club?"

Aramayo isn't even the first ordinary fan to die at this same fixture of late. A couple of years ago, Emanuel Alvarez, a Velez supporter, was unlucky enough to be hit by a bullet fired into the coach he was riding to San Lorenzo's ground in. The assailants were barras, though whether they were linked with Huracan - which given the location of the attack, and the rivalry between Velez and Huracan, doesn't seem unlikely - or San Lorenzo still isn't clear today. One thing that's clear is that when Velez play San Lorenzo, it's not an especially safe fixture to attend any more.

Argentine football had enjoyed a fair stretch without a violent death in or around a stadium before this. River fan Paz's death at Velez was, after all, due to a heart attack (and official incompetence) and not violence. It's less clear whether either of these men - Paz or Aramayo - had anything in their system at the time of the death. Aramayo was 36, and Paz only 18. Both seem rather young to suffer a heart attack, whether or not they were being beaten up at the time. The point needs to be reiterated, though, that whether or not they were intoxicated in some way at the time, both were ordinary fans, not barras, and neither went to the game looking for any trouble.

Typically when a death occurs at an Argentine ground, the press here become vocal about the need for more safety measures and more official accountability, and the fuss normally lasts a couple of weeks. After that, things quieten down again and the same cycle repeats. As for the officials charged with making sure fans get safely to and from the match, no level of authority wants to take responsibility.

Aramayo's death has thrown the issue into the spotlight again in Argentina, but sadly we shouldn't expect it to lead to any lasting change.

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