By Andres Mills Gallego

When I think of supporter culture in S. America I think of one thing - organized chaos.  I think that most supporters culture really is a mirror of that country's culture in everyday life.  It is what I love about supporter culture in the MLS; it draws from so many different cultures both in the supporter sense and in the backgrounds of the members that make up each group.  It is also a very true statement when talking about the supporter groups in S. America.  The same vibrant chaos that you feel in the stadium is felt at the markets, plazas and especially when driving a car.  The supporter styles vary a bit between countries, but there are more similarities than differences.  Like in many other parts of the world, supporters mainly come from the working class.  South Americans are very, very proud of where they come from and this shows in the stands.  For me personally watching and supporting the Colombian National team was what I was first the most passionate about.  In Colombia when the national team plays everything stops and EVERYONE watches.  Generally speaking soccer is always on the brain, whether it be playing or watching.  While the belief that S. Americans are very, sometimes overly passionate is a stereotype; it can also be a true statement.  This same passion finds its way into the stands and leads to some of the best support in the world.  That same passion also often leads to violence both in and outside the stadium, I will talk more about that a bit later.  First let’s look at what are the typical things one would see in the supporters section.

Like I said in the beginning, it can be pure chaos in the supporters section.  This starts actually before the game while the fans are getting ready to head to the stadium.  In some stadiums alcohol is not allowed.  It is however permitted to drink anywhere else, including in the streets.  Fans will typically gather in a park that is near the stadium to start singing and drinking.  From there they will head to the stadium, usually in a “caravana” or caravan of mini busses loaded well beyond capacity with fans hanging out the windows and doors singing and chanting.  It can be pretty chaotic and intimidating if you aren’t supporting the local team.  It is necessary to get to the stadium very early and the reason for this also stems from the chaos that is matchday.  Seats to most games are not sold as GA, but that is how the stadium is treated.  Everywhere.  Your ticket will have a seat number, but everyone ignores that and sits where they can find room.  For the bigger games you also have people sneaking in so the stadium is usually filled well beyond capacity.  I have seen people sitting on the concrete beams that form the rafters, and seeing 3-4 rows of people behind the last row of seats is quite normal.  The stadium as a whole is pretty much a free for all.  This especially holds true for the supporter section.  

The Capo
There aren’t really capos in the same way that we have them here in Seattle.  There is a “capo” present but that refers to the guy in charge of the group as a whole.  The “banda” or band dictates the action.  One of the similarities that most barras share is that everything starts with the band.  The band consists of many “bombos” or big bass drums, trumpets and other percussion instruments.  Once in the section it is expected for you to give your all and never stop supporting or singing.  The songs are typically about the fans love for the team, their neighborhood and how pathetic the rivals are.  

Pyro is certainly present and widely used.  This ranges from the smoke and flares we are used to seeing as well as roman candle flares, firecrackers, bottle rockets and actually setting small fires with chemicals(these are quick burning and do minimal damage to the stadium).  It can get pretty intense and because of this kids (under the age of 14) are usually not allowed in the supporters section.  Pyro is used to receive the team at the start of a match, especially for the bigger games such as Libertadores cup, or important league cup games.  It is also used to celebrate important victories.  It is an amazing sight to see the supporters section lit up with smoke and fire, but it can be quite dangerous as well.  Last year in Bolivia a 14 year old boy was killed when a visiting fan was setting off a flare and a piece struck him in the eye.  While violence is prevalent S. American soccer this appeared to be an accident and unintentional.  

Tifo is another thing that is used during the match.  Overheads are sometimes used, though are not as popular as they are here or in Europe.  The reason for this is that the elaborate overhead choreos are only used once and that is not something you would not likely see too much in S. America.  This would be seen as wasteful and a lot of groups simply would not have the funds to do this sort of thing on a regular basis.  You do see overheads but they are recycled and used for more than one game.  Another thing that is used is a “tapa tribuna” (which literally means “covers the stands”), these are huge massive flags that cover at least one whole end and sometimes as much as ¾” of the stadium.  For everyday tifo most groups use long vertical banners that stretch from the second level down to the first.  People crowd around these banners and pogo with them in hand.  There are also flags both big and small, umbrellas, balloons, really anything that has the clubs colors on it.  The club I support has a big banner in the front with the name of the group (much like the one ECS uses) as well as numerous banners displaying the various neighborhoods and smaller cities that are present in supporting the club.  

The clubs colors and crest are extremely important and can be seen all over the stadium, including on the clothing worn by the fans and supporters.  Not too much thought is put into what to wear or what not to wear, though I would say most people in the stadium will have some version of the clubs shirt, hat or coats.  There is no feeling against wearing the clubs shirt, in fact it is encouraged.  The reason for this I believe, is that the supporters and even the fans feel a complete sense of ownership over the club.  Players will come and go, some of them even will be loved by the fans, but they will turn on them in an instant if they feel that player betrayed the supporters or the club. When River Plate was on the verge of relegation the supporters stormed the pitch to yell and shove the players, they felt they were not respecting the shirt or giving everything for the club.  The club is what is most important and the colors and crest are symbols that represent the club.  

The Full 90
Once the match starts everyone is expected to give their all for the entirety of the game.  Jumping, singing, banging on the drums and proudly hoisting tifo is all part of that.  Something that I think Barristas do well is keeping the intensity going the whole game, even when their team is down.  This quote is from one of the best Italian players of all time Roberto Baggio and describes S. American Barras well:

"How did I become a fan of Boca? It's an interesting story. A rainy Sunday, I was at my house with a friend of mine and I saw a game on TV. The score was 4–0, and was played at the Boca stadium, La Bombonera. At one point they scanned across the crowd at their fans: they danced, they sang, they twirled flags and banners. A contagious joy. I said to my friend, 'It's beautiful to do this when their team is winning.' And he turned to me and said: 'Roberto, are you watching? Boca are losing 0–4! …' From that moment Boca has become my team. That stadium gives me incredible feelings."

The feeling is that we expect the players, who are there for the club, to give everything for the shirt so why should we as supporters not do the exact same thing?  When our players get scored on do we want them to quiet down and sulk?  Hell no!!!!  So if we go down a goal we need to get louder, jump higher and put more color up because that attitude is exactly what we expect from our players.  

Unfortunately I can’t talk about S. American supporter culture without talking about the violence that exists within it.  Violence has always been a part of soccer in S. America.  Historically it has been the worst in Argentina and Brazil, but it is spreading to other parts of the continent as well.  Just this last summer the on a trip back to Colombia the night I arrived in Cali two men were attacked by the stadium, one was stabbed to death, the other was beaten badly.  I was there for about a month and 3 people died from fights between barras.  In all 3 cases the incidents started just at the sight of the opposing supporters.  Stealing rival groups banners and flags happens all the time and leads to a lot of fights.  Last I checked in Uruguay some stadiums won’t allow any banners bigger than 3x5 in for matches to try and prevent fights between groups.  The more banners that you can steal from your rival the more you can ridicule them.  After years and years of this back and forth it is easy to see how it can lead to violence.  Away support is hardly even allowed in Argentina anymore due to the violence between groups.  This in fact did little to curb the violence, instead it just move it outside the stadium.  That and a good amount of the violence actually takes place between supporters of the same team caught in a power struggle.  

The Colombian team Atletico Nacional (the team I despise more than any other) made it to the final of the apertura season last year.  As a consequence of violence between their supporters and other groups both legs of the final were played with no away support.  I happened to be in Medellin during the first leg so I decided to go to the game with two of my cousins.  I support America de Cali which is a rival of Atl Nacional (the two have meet 15 times in the final) so I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit nervous heading to the game (I wear a bracelet with the colors and the crest of America, I took it off for the night).  We went through security at 3 different points and heavily patted down at each point. The atmosphere was pretty good, but nothing compared to what it is like with away support present.  Things just got worse in Medellin and the local government threatened to shut the stadium down.  Not long after that members of Nacional’s supporter group ambushed and killed a 15 year old girl who had been in a fight with members of Los del Sur (Nacional’s group). It can get so bad that you don’t even need to be at the game to get caught up in the violence.  A few years ago my cousins were watching the final of the Copa Colombia between Nacional (their team, ugh) and America.  Nacional ended up winning the game so they went to the plaza to celebrate the victory with fellow supporters.  While talking on the corner of the park a motorcycle drove up and started shooting at them wounding two people standing directly to the right of my cousins.  They were America supporters and would have shot my cousin in the face had the gun not run out of bullets (my cousin distinctly remembers hearing the clicks of the empty barrel)  My cousin lost his prized possesion, an original Nacional jersey from the year they won the Libertadores Cup, when he took it off to stop the bleeding of the kid who get shot.  All of these incidents while not common, happen with enough frequency to be very real and very troubling.  I often say I wish the same passion the barristas have in the stands made it here to the states, but never the violence.   There are people that are trying to get rid of the violence in the culture.  Last year America played a friendly against its crosstown rival Deportivo Cali ( Montero & Hurtado’s old team) as a “clasico de la paz” or derby for peace.  Both supporters groups attended and there were no incidents reported.  

It all comes back to that feeling of organized chaos.  The atmosphere is rich, vibrant and intense.  You feel a rush being in the stands and the feeling that anything could happen at any moment makes for an amazing experience.  I say organized because while it may feel like complete chaos at times, there is still thought that goes into the support and there are people behind the scenes working hard to make things happen.  There is still a rhythm to it all, a beat which starts with the band and spreads out into the stadium.  Seeing America play in a semi-final game for the Libertadores cup was one of the greatest moments in my life.  They lost the game 0-3 to Boca (The best team on the planet in those times), but the experience itself was amazing.  The stadium was probably 5k over capacity, there was pyro all over the stadium (a guy lit a fire and let off a huge pack of fireworks just a few rows in front of us) and the traveling Boca fans were safe behind their fence and line of cops with machine guns.  The love for the city and the club could be felt in every inch of the stadium a well as the hatred for our opponents.  The intensity works both ways, in support of our club and in our absolute hatred of the other team on the pitch.  The experience is a unique one and certainly is not for everyone.  It is a style I love and probably still is my favorite way to watch a game and support my team.  Having said that I am older now and have kids.  Taking my son to games at RBP and being able to have him in the supporters section is wonderful and I am not sure I would trade that.  No one really has to worry about their safety when supporting here in the MLS and that is a good thing.  Supporters culture in S. America is at a bit of a crossroads right now,  I hope that the violence can taken out of it while leaving the passion intact.