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.
NELSON ALMEIDA/AFP/Getty Images
Riot police clash with fans in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
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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. (PHOTO: 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."

 

Many, however, would disagree. "When you hear the word torcida organizada, or 'organized supporters,' you would imagine it would be something positive," says Cassio Zirpoli, a journalist for the Diario de Pernambuco. "But really they're just 'organized' in terms of doing harm. They create a great atmosphere in the stadium by bringing flags, banners and drums and singing throughout the game, but the violence far outweighs the support they give the team. It's true that it's a minority that causes the violence, and there's no way the directors can hope to control tens of thousands of 'members' but that's not an excuse. If the directors genuinely oppose the violence, then they need to find a way to register and control their members." 

The words of Zirpoli and Thiago illustrate perhaps the biggest problem that the Inferno Coral face: how to distinguish between "official" members of the group and youngsters from rough neighborhoods who wear the group's colors and go to games, but are more easily drawn to violence than the directors.

A few years ago, a senior Inferno Coral member was stabbed near Arruda after he confronted a gang dressed in Inferno T-shirts who were robbing other Santa Cruz fans after games. "Crime like that isn't a soccer problem, it's a social problem," says Cunha, tapping my knee for emphasis. "The people who come to the clubhouse and go to the games with us understand that. But there are thousands of so-called members that we can't control. I see people standing amongst the Inferno Coral who I've never seen before." 

Paulo Ricardo Silva, 26, a soccer fan who was killed
Paulo Ricardo Silva, 26, a soccer fan who was hit and killed by a toilet bowl thrown from the stands outside Arruda stadium in Recife, Brazil. (PHOTO: REUTERS/Guga Matos/JC Imagem)

Inside the aging concrete bowl of Arruda water pours through holes in the upper deck of the stadium and spatters loudly on the steps of the lower bleachers below. The field is a quagmire, and the ball sticks in the mud every few seconds. The rain and the team's poor current form has tested the loyalty of even the Santa supporters, and the few thousand fans that dot the vast expanse of the terraces huddle together, bedraggled, forlorn and largely silent. Other than the odd flash of a green Imperio Alviverde rain jacket, I find it hard to spot the Inferno Coral members. The game finishes in a drab 1-1 tie.

Later that night, when most fans are already headed back home, three men re-enter the stadium. They creep to the upper top deck, where they proceed to demolish a bathroom. They drag a toilet to the exterior wall of the stadium and hurl it over the side. Falling from a height of 25 meters, it hits 26-year-old Paulo Ricardo Silva, walking with a group of visiting fans on the street below. He dies instantly. Silva was a member of the torcida organizada of Santa's Recife rivals Sport, known as Jovem Sport, and was at the game to support the Jovem's allies, the Parana organizada Furia Parana. "They killed my son and they killed me too," sobs Paulo's mother when she learns of his death. 

After being apprehended by police, the three men admit to being Inferno Coral members.

"It's time to play hardball with the organizadas," says Jose Bispo, public prosecutor for Pernambuco. "We've banned them before, now we're going to eradicate them completely." The cover of the Diario de Pernambuco leads with a single word – "#Shame." The Brazilian soccer association, the CBF, announces that Arruda will be closed for an indefinite period.

Back at the clubhouse three days later, Thiago is upset. "We had nothing to do with it," he murmurs, standing on an exposed second floor landing. It is a quiet, sunny Monday afternoon. Apart from a few workmen lazily continuing with the construction work, the dusty building is almost deserted, a far cry from the boisterous atmosphere of the previous Friday. One young girl sprawls in front of the TV watching daytime soaps, while another, a member of a torcida organizada visiting from Natal, washes her clothes in a sink and a skinny teenage boy wolfs down his lunch of rice, beans and chicken.

"That sort of thing should never happen," continues Thiago. "It's a tragedy." Does he know who the three men were? He shrugs and purses his lips. It is not a yes, but nor is it a no. "No one who went to the game with us," he says, "was involved in the crime."

In the days that follow, Cunha posts a statement from the Inferno Coral on Facebook, expressing regret over Silva's death and inviting Inferno members to attend the funeral as a mark of respect. The three men responsible for the crime are arrested. According to the lawyer for one of the men, his client's intention was to kill the president of Jovem Sport, Mario de Azevedo, who, along with other Jovem members, had allegedly beaten him with a baseball bat after a Santa-Sport classico (a game between local or city rivals) a few weeks earlier.

Galoucura member with tattoos, Belo Horizonte
Galoucura member with tattoos, Belo Horizonte. (PHOTO: Bruno Poppe)

An anonymous director of Jovem Sport gives word to the Recife media that, despite his best efforts, revenge may be coming. "Our biggest problem," says the director, echoing Cunha and Thiago, "is the factions from the bairros. A lot of the time they don't listen to us, and just do what they want." 

Guns raised, the police invade the Inferno clubhouse later that week, dragging those present, including the two girls and the teenage boy I had met that Monday, away for questioning. The authorities search the compound, finding only a lone baseball bat and a knife. Not long after the raid, the Recife police force goes on strike and the city descends into chaos. Twenty-seven murders are reported in a single 48-hour period and there is widespread looting in the suburbs. The Brazilian military is called in to restore order, and soon tanks are rolling down the streets. Perhaps fearing easy reprisals in such a lawless atmosphere, Cunha and the other Inferno directors go underground, and stop returning my calls or e-mails.

After a couple of days, the police go back to work. No official punishment is levied against the Inferno Coral over the killing, although Santa Cruz are fined and banned from playing at Arruda for five games. The three men confess to the crime and await trial. The media storm dies down. Everything continues as it was before, minus the life of one more soccer fan. 

The history of the torcidas organizadas is almost as old as Brazilian soccer itself. In his book O Clube Como Vontade e Representacao ("The Soccer Club as Passion and Representation"), historian Bernardo Buarque describes the birth of the first organizadas in Rio de Janeiro in 1942, the most famous of which was Flamengo's Charanga, led by famed fan leader Jaime do Carvalho, who also accompanied the Brazilian national squad to the World Cup in 1954 and 1974.

Speaking with the Brazilian magazine Historia, Buarque explained, "Each team had its own fan group and its own chief fan, who was always a charismatic figure: Tarza of Botafogo, Dulce Rosalina of Vasco da Gama, Paulista of Fluminense. There were plenty of fights even then, but soccer was more innocent at the time."

The innocence began to wane in the 1960s and 1970s, during the country's period of rule by military dictatorship, when, perhaps inspired by youth and student protest movements in Brazil and Europe, younger fans began to resent the old organizadas, which maintained close links to the clubs and therefore officialdom. It was around this time that the torcidas jovens ("young supporters") started to emerge – more youthful, more dissident and quicker to protest against corrupt directors and incompetent coaches than their predecessors.

As Brazilian society grew more urban, industrialized and correspondingly more violent, so too did the organizadas. "Soccer reflects what occurs in wider society," Buarque told Historia, paraphrasing anthropologist Roberto DaMatta. "During the 1970s there was a huge increase in the number of organizadas, each one seeming to represent an individual neighborhood. This led to an increase in the violence."

The first registered torcida organizada death of the modern era came in 1988, when the leader of the Palmeiras organizada Mancha Verde, Cleo Sostenses, was shot outside his group's clubhouse by a rival gang and since then the violence, in both Brazilian soccer and Brazilian society, has shown no sign of abating.

For Cunha, police negligence is part of the problem. "When these gangs leave the neighborhoods on the day of the games, why isn't there a police car with them?" he asks sharply. "When Paul McCartney played at Arruda there were so many police here that I couldn't drive down the street. But then that's a middle-class event, so they get treated differently from soccer fans."

The Inferno Coral believe the treatment they receive from the police is unnecessarily brutal. "When we go to the Ilha do Retiro (the stadium of Sport) they fire tear gas and the beat us with batons," says Cunha. "Even when we're not doing anything."

The relationship between the torcidas organizadas and Brazil's soccer clubs is also a fraught one. For years, elected team presidents, who often double as politicians, have provided subsidized travel and match tickets to the groups, eager to secure the support of huge voting blocs. Yet Palmeiras, one of the big Sao Paulo teams, recently announced they were breaking all ties with their largest organizada, while star national team striker Fred voiced his anger at the Fluminense organizada, Jovem Flu.

"We need to look hard at these groups," he told the press. "They're responsible for the majority of deaths in soccer, they get their team banned from playing at their own stadium, and they're infiltrated by marginais who drive ordinary fans away from games."

The Inferno Coral are adamant that they receive no such help from the club. "They don't help us with anything," argues Bolinha, as we prepare to brave the rain before the game. "But it's not our objective to receive something from the club, it's to support the team."

Mixed Martial Arts training, Galoucura gym, Belo Horizonte
Mixed Martial Arts training, Galoucura gym, Belo Horizonte. (PHOTO: Bruno Poppe)

Belo Horizonte is a sprawling metropolis of over 5 million people in southeastern Brazil. It is the country's third biggest city and one of its most prosperous, though as always in Brazilian urban areas, away from the upper- and middle-class neighborhoods there is a precipitous drop into swathes of intense poverty. Belo Horizonte, which will host seven games in this summer's World Cup, including a semi-final, is a wealthier city than Recife in many ways, not least in terms of soccer. While the teams in Recife struggle to compete at a national level, Belo Horizonte is home to Atletico Mineiro, current holders of the biggest club competition in South America, the Copa Libertadores, as well as the current Brazilian league champions Cruzeiro.

It is also home to Galoucura, the torcida organizada of Atletico and allies of the Inferno Coral. In contrast to the Inferno clubhouse, the Galoucura headquarters is bright and clean. Upstairs, sunlight pools on the floor of a mixed martial arts training center, complete with a gleaming fighting cage. Two men grapple on the floor, their limbs straining. Downstairs there is a well-equipped gym and a meeting room. Two fierce pit bull terriers, Pierre (named after a tough Atletico defensive midfielder) and Shakira, bark from behind an iron gate.

Spending time with the torcidas organizadas can be a disconcerting experience. A number of Galoucura directors – Saf, Feijao, Macale, Pipoca and president Cesar Gordinho – sit around the long wooden table of the meeting room. Most of the men are heavily muscled, and while there is conviviality in the air, there is also an unmistakable whiff of machismo and testosterone. And amongst the civility and talk of devotion to one's team, there is violent imagery everywhere – the machine-gun-toting snake of the Inferno Coral has its iconographic match in the snarling Tasmanian Devil of Galoucura.

A man at the clubhouse named Macale is large and brooding, but with a disarmingly warm smile. He has been a member of Galoucura for 24 years. "My dad took me to stand among Galoucura when I was a kid, and after that I was hooked," he says.

Galoucura, which is one of the biggest organizadas in Brazil and has existed for 30 years, boasts of having more than 65,000 members and sympathizers. The way the directors describe it, the organization sounds like a civically minded youth club. "We offer free classes to young people in the local communities," says the thick-set, heavily-tattooed Gordinho. "And we run a soccer school on Saturdays where the kids get something to eat when they turn up." Then he shakes his head. "Of course the media just talk about the bad stuff, even though we've had very little trouble since 2010."

He mentions 2010 for a reason. In December of that year Otavio Fernandes, a 19-year-old Cruzeiro fan and member of the club's Mafia Azul organizada, was confronted by a gang of Galoucura members after a mixed-martial-arts tournament in the posh Belo Horizonte neighborhood of Savassi. He was beaten to death.

Twelve men were eventually charged with the crime, including Macale and Saf, who each spent more than a year in prison, though on charges of gang membership rather than homicide. Former Galoucura president Roberto Augusto Pereira, vice-president Willian Thomaz Palumbo and a number of other ex-directors were found guilty of murder and remain behind bars.

Macale, his eyes lowered to the table in the Galoucura meeting room, says, "I was innocent. I didn't do anything. I was there that night, but I wasn't even close to the fight." Saf, angular and intense, says only, "I did my time and I paid my debt." For a brief moment, the room falls silent, the only sound that of the dogs scratching behind their gate.

 

Earlier this year, before a classico against Cruzeiro, nine Galoucura directors, including many of the men in the room, had their cars stopped and searched after leaving the clubhouse. The police say they found two wooden clubs and an iron bar.

"It was a set up," says Saf, angrily. "There was no iron bar in the car, and just one club. Plus we knew they were watching us. If we were going to kill someone, we'd hardly do it with the police watching, would we?" He does not explain why there was a club in the car in the first place.

The feeling of being victimized by both the media and the police is common in both Recife and Belo Horizonte. "When we played in Sao Paulo last year, the police called me on my cell phone," says Thiago, a soft-spoken tattoo artist and Galoucura member. "They said that if I lit any flares at the game, I'd be arrested on the spot." He laughs. "I wasn't even going to the game!"

President Cesar Gordinho with other members of Galoucura.
President Cesar Gordinho with other members of Galoucura. (PHOTO: Bruno Poppe)

The Brazilian police have a reputation for brutality, particularly when dealing with poorer citizens. A recent Amnesty International report, "Torture in 2014 – 30 years of unfulfilled promises," described "an increase in abusive behavior by the Brazilian police during the protests and in the run up to the 2014 World Cup."

This sinister ramp-up, of course, makes perfect sense to the Galoucura directors.  "They're trying to get rid of us," says Gordinho. "If there's a fight on the street corner these days, it's the fault of the torcidas organizadas, and the press call us bandidos and marginais. Why? Because the gringos are coming for the World Cup."

Juca Kfouri, however, does not believe the directors' claims of innocence. "I don't believe the directors don't know who the violent elements are. Nor do I accept that these violent elements aren't really part of the organizadas. Their great excuse is they can't control large parts of the organizadas, but if that's true, then they should leave! Someone has to be responsible."

A tone of weariness creeps into Kfouri's voice. "But on the other hand the police know who the culprits are too," he says. "So there is a complicity here involving police corruption, and also irresponsibility on the part of the directors of the football clubs, who are terrified of offending the organizadas."

Galoucura members Feijão and Pipoca (seated) and Macele (standing).
Galoucura members Feijão and Pipoca (seated) and Macele (standing). (PHOTO: Bruno Poppe)

Kfouri then refers to Bill Buford's seminal 1990 study of English soccer hooligans, Among the Thugs, noting "if you treat a fan like an animal, he's going to act like an animal." 

In the Galoucura clubhouse, Gordinho admits his organizada is not blameless. "We've all had fights here," he says. "If we play against Flamengo, for example, and they come after us, what are we going to do? Stand there and take it? But we don't go out looking for trouble, that's the difference."

Instead, as with the World cup and Brazilian society, it seems that time after time, trouble comes to the organizadas