Soccer's Deadliest Fans: The Troubled World of Brazil's 'Organizadas'

With the World Cup fast approaching, Brazil is attempting to curtail its controversial soccer fan clubs. But who is really to blame for the violence surrounding the beautiful game?

Riot police clash with fans in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
May 28, 2014 11:30 AM ET

In a dimly lit concrete bunker on a deserted side street, not far from the Arruda soccer stadium in the Brazilian city of Recife, Paulo Cesar Cunha is holding his cell phone over his head and talking quickly. "When I leave the stadium, I hold my phone like this," he says, his eyes glinting. "I see the police watching me, and I say come on, hit me if you want. I'm filming you. And I won't put it down until I get to my car. It's how I defend myself."

It is a clammy, rainy Friday night in early May. Cunha, tall, heavily muscled and thirtysomething, wears a baseball cap, gold chain and baggy clothes, which gives him the look of a pissed-off b-boy. He is the president of Inferno Coral, a torcida organizada, which is the Brazilian term for an organized fan club, or, depending on your point of view, dangerous gang of lower-class hooligans. The Inferno are fans of Santa Cruz, the best supported soccer club in Recife, the state capital of Pernambuco and one of Brazil's 12 World Cup host venues. The U.S. national team will play Germany here on June 26th, but Paulo will not be at the game. "The World Cup isn't for me, or him, or him," he says, about his friends and fellow Inferno Coral senior leaders (known as "directors"). "It's for the middle classes and the tourists. And they're using it to squeeze us out."

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Cunha is referring to the social divisions within Brazil, which in turn are reflected in Brazilian football. Recife, a city of just over 4 million people, is in the northeast of the country, Brazil's poorest region, where according to a 2011 report by research institute IBGE, 9.6 million people (18.1 percent of the area's population) live below the government's extreme poverty line of $32 a month. The poor live in the abandoned heart of the city and its grotty suburbs, while the upper classes reside in gleaming skyscrapers lining the city's golden beaches, a stark visual symbol of Brazil's social inequality.

If we're going to get figurative, the impending glittering spectacle of the World Cup and the five-time world champion Brazilian national team can be thought of as the equivalent of the gated communities and swanky apartments of the country's rich, while the Inferno Coral and torcida organizada gangs like them are Brazil's poorest neighborhoods, its favelas and periferias.

The World Cup has a way of forcing this kind of thinking. As the new stadiums built for the event bring with them more expensive soccer ticket prices, they are excluding many of the country's working-class fans. In 2012, a survey by sports marketing agency Pluri Consultants reported that tickets in Brazil were the most expensive among the world's major soccer leagues when local wage levels are taken into account. During the Confederations Cup last June, respected journalist Juca Kfouri wrote a widely-read column for a Sao Paulo daily paper, "They Whitened Our Soccer," about the homogenizing effect that rising prices are having on the ethnic make-up of Brazilian soccer crowds, as poorer fans, who tend to be people of color, are priced out. Members of torcidas organizadas are almost exclusively drawn from Brazil's lower social classes, putting the place of the groups in Brazil's freshly built stadiums and its newly transformed soccer landscape in doubt.

Another tragic similarity between the torcidas organizadas and the poor neighborhoods from which they spring is the looming specter of violence.

Between 1988 and 2013, there were 234 soccer-related deaths in Brazil, including 30 last year. Almost all were the result of ongoing feuds between rival torcida organizadas. In the mid-western city of Goiania there were nine organizada connected murders in the space of 11 months in 2011 and 2012, and last year there were 14 fan deaths in the city of Natal, another World Cup site.

In the last game of the 2013 season, supporters of rival clubs Vasco da Gama and Atletico Paranaense engaged in a mass brawl that sprawled across the terraces of southern Brazil's Arena Joinville stadium. The game was televised on the nationwide Globo network, and viewers watched in horror as fans stamped and kicked at the prone bodies of their rivals. "As long as things continue like this, fans should stay at home and watch games on TV," said Juca Kfouri the next day. They often do – the average crowd in the top division of Brazilian soccer is a puny 14,000, lower than in Major League Soccer. Violence is frequently cited by non-attending fans as a main reason for staying away from soccer stadiums. The same stadiums to which, starting on June 12th, hordes of soccer fans will swarm for the World Cup. But will officials be able to hide the dark side of the jogo bonito, the beautiful game?

Thiago Alexsandro de Santos outside the Inferno HQ
Thiago Alexsandro de Santos outside the Inferno HQ.
Darren McVeigh

As the rain pours down outside the Inferno Coral clubhouse, Cunha and his fellow directors – Macaxeira, Thiago, Valdir, Eudes and Bolinha – explain the organizadas' perspective. "Our mission is to be present at every Santa game. Wherever Santa play, in Brazil or abroad, the Inferno Coral will be there," says Bolinha, whose nickname, "Little Ball," is a reference to his chubby, affable features. Given that Brazil is roughly the same size as the lower 48 States, going to every game is a considerable undertaking, especially for those of limited financial means.

Later tonight, Santa will play against Parana Clube from the city of Curitiba in the south. Although the Inferno Coral ("Coral" refers to a type of snake, a reference to the Santa Cruz mascot) are currently banned from attending matches at Arruda after a fight at a game in the city of Maceio last year, inadequate policing infrastructure means that the ban has been effectively reduced to a prohibition on Inferno shirts and flags, and the men plan to go to the stadium anyway.

The directors are wearing green rain jackets bearing the name Imperio Alviverde ("Green and White Empire") – the torcida organizada of Parana's city rivals Coritiba FC, who are Inferno allies. "We can't wear Inferno colors or watch the game together," explains Thiago. "Because we're directors, the police know us. They'll break us up and make us stand in different parts of the ground."

The Inferno Coral enlistment is enormous. Including registered members and sympathizers (fans who wear Inferno shirts and attend games, but are not official organizada members), director Bolinha says that the group's ranks number 30,000 people. Other sources, such as Recife's Diario de Pernambuco newspaper, put the number as high as 80,000.

"I joined in 1999," says Bolinha. "I used to watch Santa from the club members' area, but when I saw the way the Inferno supported the team, singing and chanting for the whole game, I wanted to be with them. My dad was worried at first, but my cousin was part of the Inferno. He said he'd look after me."

Macaxeira, lean and sleepy-eyed, pipes up. "The Inferno Coral is a family," he says, and the rest of the group nod solemnly. Gathered below a giant mural of the Inferno badge – a snake painted in the red, black and white stripes of the Santa Cruz colors, toting a machine gun – the directors are mostly friendly, though they maintain a certain wariness during our conversation. They've received hostile treatment from the local media, which invariably describes them as vandalos, bandidos or marginais, the latter a Brazilian catch-all for those deemed a part of the petty criminal underclass.

"Our support for Santa is eternal," declares Thiago, and you can't accuse the Inferno Coral of being fair-weather fans. Their club has never won a major national title and recently spent six years in the bottom divisions of the Brazilian league before returning to Serie B this year. Yet in 2011, while playing in Serie D, Santa was watched by average crowds of almost 40,000, the largest in Brazil by some distance.

Yet even among Santa fans there are divisions. "I watched a game [in the largely middle-class] club members' section once," says Cunha. "It was a nightmare. Everyone complained for the whole game and cursed their own players. I didn't feel at home at all." In a society as divided as Brazil, the feeling of belonging, and of being with people from their own neighborhoods and their own social class, is centrally important to the Inferno Coral.   

But the subject of the violence that scars both the world of the torcidas organizadas and Brazilian society itself — there were more than 50,000 homicides in the country in 2012 — cannot be overlooked. A frequent sight at Brazilian soccer matches, virtually unheard of at sporting events in Europe or the United States, are fans fighting amongst themselves, rather than with the opposing team's supporters. These conflicts generally happen on stadium terraces controlled by the torcidas organizadas, where the poorest fans gather.

Thiago explains why that is. "Those are fights between different bairros [neighborhoods] and gangs," he says. "But that's all the press want to talk about. They don't want to talk about the social projects that we're involved in. We take food and clothes to some of Recife's poorest neighborhoods, we organize blood donations. If you talk to those we help, they'll say we're good people."

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