Violence from soccer fans poses another risk to journalists in Latin America

He expected to mark a milestone in his nascent career, but journalism student Mauro Ayala went through moments of agony and fear last March 3 instead. That night, in the city of Rosario, Argentina, for the first time as a journalist he covered a soccer match between Newell – his favorite team – against San Lorenzo.

As part of a radio program that he produces with friends, Ayala was there for work: with the mission of reporting objectively, without the team jersey and sitting in the area reserved for the press. It was there, shortly after the end of the first half, that he suffered an attack that could have cost him his life.

From a paraglider piloted by a San Lorenzo fan, a shower of printed leaflets taunting the rival's fans fell.

“This angered Newell’s fans, who in response got angry with the press and started throwing rocks and bottles in our direction,” Ayala told LatAm Journalism Review (LJR).

According to Ayala, he tried to seek shelter, but that was not enough.

“Several Newell’s fans approached me and, seeing that I was not wearing a jersey or any club identification, confronted me. I explained that I couldn't wear anything distinctive because I was working covering the game. They understood, but then they took me out of the press area, beat me and took me to a lower area, where between 15 and 20 people kicked and punched me, in addition to stealing my personal and work belongings,” the journalism student said.

Ayala does not remember how he escaped the attack, he only knows that at some point the police intervened, shooting rubber bullets and dispersing the attackers. The journalist was seriously injured, with bruises on his body and injuries to his face. Even his shoes were stolen, along with items such as his phone and all his documents. According to him, although the physical injuries have healed, the emotional and psychological pain has not disappeared.

 A group of people wearing red shirts surround a point on the floor, indicating the scene of Newell's fans assaulting journalism student Mauro Ayala in a football stadium

Newell's fans assault journalism student Mauro Ayala in Coloso Marcelo Biels stadium in Rosario, Argentina (Photo: Video screenshot)



The cowardly beating of the 24-year-old student is not an isolated episode. There are records of physical attacks by football fans on journalists in several countries on the continent, from Brazil to Mexico, passing through practically all Latin American countries where soccer is strong, including Peru, Colombia, Chile, Paraguay, Ecuador and Uruguay.

Although no systematic studies were found on attacks against the press by soccer fans on the continent, anecdotal reports reveal commonalities between the attacks. They are mostly perpetrated by men, often in gangs and against women. There is a sudden anger that turns against those who are different, embodied in the figure of the journalist. The attacks happen in a cowardly manner, and generally do not result in punishment. In addition to physical attacks, there are also a series of symbolic attacks, carried out in virtual spaces and through insults.

In order to shed light on these incidents, LJR spoke with scholars of violence in sport, violence against press professionals and with journalists themselves who were victims of attacks.

Attack in Quito

In the case of Ecuadoran television reporter Anali Vasco, the violent episode took place during the production of a report that had the aim of showing the culture of organized fans in the country and reducing the stigma related to the groups.

"We decided to go to the stadiums in a different way, to do stories with more color, with more folklore. We wanted to show how the fans arrive at the stadiums, what their culture is," Vasco told LJR.

The journalist said that, as a resident of the capital Quito, she managed to produce this report in Guayaquil, with the Emelec team’s Boca Del Pozo fans. 

“It was very peaceful. We show how they prepare their songs, flags, drums,” she said.

Trying to repeat the same routine a week later with the Muerte Blanca fans, from the team Liga Deportiva Universitaria in Quito, however, the experience was different. The problem started with fans who tried to hold her microphone, Vasco said.

"They wanted to take the microphone. I didn't allow them to take it, all I did was hold it tighter. Then they pushed us, pushed the cameras, shouted strong words and insulted us. They said, ‘get out of here, you don't know anything.’"

After the reporting team moved, the incident did not escalate into anything worse. Partially recorded by Vasco and published on social media, the episode generated a wave of solidarity for the journalist, and the leaders of the Muerte Blanca fans spoke out in her favor.

Sudden anger

The incident against Vasco has some characteristics in common with others: in this case, the violence appears suddenly and unexpectedly.

“Normally it is spontaneous violence, which has to do with some stimulus in the moment itself, such as a penalty or sporting defeat, and they need to take it out on someone,” Argentine sociologist Diego Murzi, vice-president of the anti-soccer violence NGO Salvemos Al Fútbol, told LJR. The researcher for Conicet in Buenos Aires consulted a database and said that there are few attacks against journalists by football fans in Argentina.

The country, however, saw another recent attack in Mendoza on Feb. 23, when fans of Chile's Colo Colo attacked a local TV crew.

Two cameramen, Pablo Rodríguez and Antonio González, and reporter Marisol Benegas, were attacked.. The trio were filming an unrelated news story in a plaza when they witnessed a conflict. Soon, they became targets:

“Chilean fan groups were confronting students from a high school. It seems that these fans wanted to enter the school. When they returned to the plaza, we started recording and they started hitting the camera. My colleague replied that we were working", Benegas told newspaper Olé.

"One colleague was kicked in the chest, the other was hit a series of times, they threw him to the ground, he had a sneaker mark on the back of his shirt. And they shouted 'enough, enough,'" the journalist added.

In other countries, there are also recent comparable cases, such as the attack in December against Colombian journalist José Luiz Alarcón in Medellín. After Atlético Nacional was beaten by Medellín, fans tried to invade the pitch and the referee ended the match.

Outside the stadium, fans began to criticize Alarcón's film crew, accusing them of being from Bogotá, as the journalist reported to Semana magazine. A fight soon escalated into a physical attack against journalists, Alarcón said.

“Three started to hit us three, but when we realized there were seven or eight who wanted to fall upon us,” he said. “What caught my attention the most was that the guys tried to take the camera. They managed to take a light battery.”

The violence only stopped after other fans acted to stop the aggression.

Another episode of sudden anger occurred in February 2023 in the Paraguayan city of Presidente Franco, during the indoor soccer derby between Paranaense and Presidente Franco.

Outraged by the defeat and the referee's decision, Presidente Franco's fans and sports team management invaded a broadcast booth and attacked journalists Héctor Maciel, Wilson Martínez and Alcides Brítez, according to the Paraguayan press.

“A girl from Franco came up and attacked me, just as the treasurer and the goalkeeper coach came up to attack us in the cabin,” Maciel, who received blows to the head, told local radio.

Sometimes the attacks are systematic, and combine the virtual and physical worlds. In June last year, Uruguayan journalist Ana Inés Martínez had water thrown at her by Peñarol fans, subsequently receiving an avalanche of attacks on digital networks. In September, in another game for the same team, fans threw stones at her, and she had to end the game sheltering in Peñarol's dugout.

“I counted 10 or 15 stones. With coins, you could fill a bag to buy a snack,” Martínez told El País in Montevideo.

ruguayan journalist Ana Inés Martínez seeks refuge on the bench after being targeted with thrown objects during the Peñarol versus Boston River match in Montevideo, highlighting the dangers journalists face while covering sports events

Uruguayan journalist Ana Inés Martínez sits on the bench for protection as objects are thrown at her during the match between Peñarol and Boston River in Montevideo in September 2023 (Photo:  Instagram Screenshot)


Unknown number of cases

The only survey of attacks on journalists by sports fans to which LJR had access was produced by Brazilian researcher Aline de Oliveira Rios, from the Federal University of Santa Catarina, and refers to Brazil. Using data from the National Federation of Journalists (Fenaj), Rios counted 69 cases – including physical and symbolic attacks (like threats or swearing) – in the country between 2013 and 2023, including 11 cases in the last year.

Rios, who studies violence against journalists as a research topic, says she believes there is significant underreporting in these numbers.

The researcher lists the culture of naturalizing violence in stadiums as one of the factors that make journalists vulnerable.

“There is a culture of naturalizing violence in stadiums. It's a place where people go to let animals out, to vent. They curse coaches, they curse referees, and they curse journalists too,” Rios said.

Professor at the State University of Campinas (Unicamp) in Brazil and one of the foremost specialists in violence in sport in Brazil, Heloisa Reis differentiates two types of possible violence against journalists. Firstly, she considers it possible to have a fan who cannot separate his identity from that of a football team, and may eventually erupt into violence.

“A fanatical person cannot separate himself from the team. If journalists frequently convey information that a guy who doesn't have a well-formed individuality considers unfavorable to his team, he may think that it affects his life and attack the journalist. From time to time, he may lose all rationality,” Reis said.

There is also another group, “a very small minority,” in Reis’ words, that socializes through violence. As for this group, the researcher believes that there may be a more direct antagonism directed at journalists.

“In this case, we are talking about men who compete through violence. They consider police and journalists to be enemy groups,” she said. “What’s behind this is an absurd intolerance, which is related to that of the extreme right. They will have a worldview that all journalists and human rights defenders are useless.”

Just as is increasingly happening in politics, the logic of violence in sports is based on a rejection of what is different and an acceptance only of what is the same, said Colombian sociologist John Alexander Castro Lozano, a specialist in violence in sport

“Others need to be like me to be accepted. If the other is different, I reject it, and even, in the most acute moments, that person who is different can be eliminated”, Lozano told LJR.

According to Lozano, initially, the ethics of conflicts between fans in theory should presuppose a certain balance of forces. There is, however, a cultural change currently “in the limits or rules of violence, which are becoming more diffuse.”

“The initial idea is that, if I'm going to fight as a hooligan, then I need to face another hooligan, among equals. Not only between equals, but more or less in terms of proportion,” Lozano said. “But this original idea is not always fulfilled. And, if I can't attack another like me, I attack others who aren't necessarily hooligan. Generations have changed, and these minimal standards of conduct are no longer respected.”

Diego Murzi, from Salvemos Al Fútbol, said he sees the same phenomenon happening in Argentina, and also relates it to violence against journalists.

“In Argentina, since they banned visiting audiences in 2013, violence between different teams has decreased, but violence by fans against other protagonists, such as players from other teams, referees and managers, has increased. Often, they are the only spectators of the rival who are in the stadium,” he said. “They became recipients of violence when they were not. Violence is channeled towards other people.”

There is the possibility of an increase in the identification of journalists with specific football clubs as a risk factor.

“In Argentina, it is very clear that the profile of the journalist has changed. Before, it was someone who had a knowledge of football that others didn't have, and we say it was someone objective. The journalist on television or on Twitter looks more like a fan, whereas before we tried to separate this image. There is a desacralization of the press,” Murzi said.

Lozano is less categorical.

“The journalist should have a supposedly critical or objective position regarding what he is talking about, but the journalist can also become a fan and that can inflame tempers. There are journalists who create opinion rather than objectivity, and that can influence. But we do not have the accuracy to define that they are definitely promoting violent behavior,” he said.

Possible solutions

In terms of possible solutions, Heloísa Reis cites joint work between the public authorities and the leaders of the organized groups of fans, awareness of the police so that they adopt “more preventive” than massive responsive approaches, educational campaigns on the part of the clubs and also “re-discussing what it means to be man in the 21st century.”

“This is violence completely related to patriarchy, machismo and the values ​​of what it means to be a man,” she stated.

Aline Oliveira Rios said it is necessary to develop protocols to avoid risky situations and to know how to proceed in emergencies. According to the researcher, starting in college, journalists should learn strategies to deal with dangerous situations.

“We need to improve training. People are exposed. Journalists need to be prepared to recognize and know how to protect themselves,” she said.

The researcher said that freelancers and professionals from small outlets are especially vulnerable, as they do not have a legal or institutional structure to support them. She also cited impunity as a risk factor, as “it favors the culture that a person can do whatever they want and will not suffer consequences.”

All of these factors are relevant in the case of Mauro Ayala, the Rosario student attacked by fans. There is no news that any of his attackers have been arrested or charged. At college or elsewhere, the young journalist had not undergone training to protect himself. Now, he remains alone, with the support of family and friends, trying to put that horrifying night behind him.

"Thank God, physically I didn't suffer anything serious, just a few injuries after the attack. However, what really affected me was the emotional and psychological aspect. In life or in college, we prepare to work, not to be beaten. We simply prepare ourselves to work, not to receive blows. I was working. I was covering the team I'm a fan of. Going to Newell's stadium was a dream for me," he said.

Translated by Teresa Mioli
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