In England and Scotland, they are called “casuals,” in the CzechRepublic“ultras.” And in Serbia, two rival groups are known as the “Delije” (Heroes) and the “Grobari” (Undertakers).
Together, these bands of hooligans have turned soccer arenas upside down around Europe.
In Costa Rica, they are called “barras” and have unleashed their own brand of mayhem on the game. Hooliganism here has risen to the point, say some observers, that it threatens to destroy the reputation of some of Costa Rica’s most famous clubs.
In recent high-profile incidents, a game last month between Saprissa and Mexican outfit Atlante at the Ricardo Saprissa Stadium in Tibás, a northern district of San José, was marred after objects thrown by thugs rained down on the players. The violence cost Saprissa a $15,000 fine.
Saprissa responded with a hardline approach, banning fans with items such as coins and cameras in an attempt to avoid such incidents. Fans were again under the microscope during Wednesday’s CONCACAF semi-final between Saprissa and Houston Dynamo.
Late last year, a game involving La Liga and Guatemala’s Municipal held at the Alejandro Morera Soto Stadium in Alajuela, northwest of San José, saw fans go on the rampage at the final whistle, invading the pitch and fighting running battles with the police.
And the most recent clash of the big two in Costa Rica, La Liga and Saprissa, saw objects such as coins launched from the stands toward players.
Although strongly associated with the game in Latin America, hooliganism is normally seen through the prism of Argentina.
But the death of a Herediano fan a few years ago amid soccer violence awakened Costa Rican senses, and now critics are calling for action that will avoid a repeat.
Observers say the problem is rising in Costa Rica – evidenced by recent incidents. They point to poverty as a root cause.
Onésimo Gerardo Rodríguez, of the school of anthropology at the University of Costa Rica, has studied the Ultra Morada, the group that follows Saprissa, and said youths are also drawn to the barras by a sense of belonging.
Much of the graffiti and violence, he said, is about claiming home turf and commanding power over rival groups.
Juan Carlos Bonilla, spokesman for the Costa Rican Sports and Recreation Institute (ICODER), said the country lacks educational initiatives to attack the problem.
He said a seminar on soccer violence held in 2005 determined the necessity to introduce materials on the subject in the country’s classrooms, but since the change in government in 2006 plans appear to have been shelved.
ICODER works with clubs to implement security measures around the ground on match days, though Bonilla conceded the problem had to be approached from an educational angle, given the “socio-economic” dimension to the problem.
The extent of the violent confrontations has led some fans to avoid certain vennes. For Guillermo Durán, 37, a fan of Saprissa, that means he refuses to attend matches between his beloved team and La Liga that are held in the Alajuela outfit’s home ground.
He believes the level of violence between the two rival clubs is intensifying.
“Between Alajuela and Saprissa, yes, it is (getting worse),” he said.
The irony, said Durán, is that it is the team the fanatics claim to love that suffers from hooliganism.
The regional soccer authority, CONCACAF, had two representatives at Wednesday night’s game monitoring fan behavior.