Soccer and Domestic Violence: When the Beautiful Game Turns Ugly

Soccer and Domestic Violence: When the Beautiful Game Turns Ugly

Soccer and Domestic Violence: When the Beautiful Game Turns Ugly

In Colombia, cases of intimate-partner violence against women rose by 33 percent during the past two World Cups.


On May 31, 2016, guests at the upscale Metropolitan Hotel in Miami Beach, Florida, complained to management about an altercation in room 311; they’d heard yelling and screaming into the early morning. When cops arrived to investigate at 8 am, they found María Bazán, the wife of Colombian soccer star Pablo Armero, crying, with clumps of hair on the floor around her. Bazán told the police that the couple had been out drinking, and when they returned to their room, Armero wanted to have sex. “No, I’m too tired,” she told him, according to the police report. Armero became forceful—she said he yanked her necklace so forcefully it snapped off, and then grabbed a pair of scissors and cut off her extensions before the cops arrived.

Police arrested Armero for battery and took him into custody that morning. Reports of the assault appeared in local outlets in Florida the next day, and within 24 hours, it was picked up by the Colombian press. Armero was beloved in Colombia for his easygoing demeanor and eccentric dance celebrations. In 2014, he had scored the country’s first World Cup goal in 16 years, helping the men’s team advance to the quarterfinals for the first time. Now, just two summers later, Armero was locked up at the TGK Correctional Center in Miami. His reputation, it seemed, was destroyed.

Except, of course, it wasn’t. Less than a year later, in March 2017, the Colombian national soccer team selected Armero for a series of World Cup qualifying matches. To many, his inclusion in the Colombian squad was a tacit acceptance of domestic abuse. “I don’t share in the opinion that my national team, where my idols play, should include a man who abused his wife,” explained Andrea Guerrero, a prominent sports journalist, during a broadcast. Days later, UN Women said Guerrero had received “constant” death threats since speaking out.

Soccer’s institutions seemed willing to overlook Armero’s crimes, and this was not an aberration. The Colombian defender’s violence recalled a more gruesome case. Bruno Fernandes de Souza, a Brazilian goalkeeper, was convicted in 2010 to 22 years in prison for murdering his girlfriend and feeding her remains to his dogs. After the courts had failed to rule on his appeal for several years, Bruno was briefly released last year. A second-division Brazilian team signed him within a month, and he played in five games to chants of “We are all Bruno.”

Managers are often complicit too, whether it involves shielding abusive players from punishment, or doling out violence themselves. Last year, a leaked video showed Jorge Luis Pinto, Colombia’s national-team coach from 2007 to 2008, beating his daughter during an altercation with her and her then-husband. When she cried to him, “Everyone attacks me; everyone insults me,” he told her, “It’s because you deserve it.”

Gender-based violence is pervasive across Latin America, where up to 38 percent of women experience domestic abuse at some point in their lives. The number of femicides is increasing at such an alarming rate that the UN Development Program recently referred to the region as “the most violent in the world for women.”

In Colombia, the problem is so widespread—more than 70,000 cases of domestic violence were recorded in 2017 alone—that the government and civil-rights groups have identified specific days when violence against women is most common. Violence rises during in January and May, and on Sundays, when families tend to spend more time together at home; Mother’s Day is the most violent day of the year, with some cities even barring the sale of alcohol for those 24 hours. But data obtained by The Nation and analyzed by researchers at the University of Central Lancashire warns of another period of increased violence against women: the World Cup.

According to figures from Medicina Legal, Colombia’s medical examiner’s office, cases of intimate-partner violence against women rose by an average of 38 and 25 percent on game days for the country’s national team during the 2014 and 2018 World Cups, respectively, and by nearly 50 percent during the 2015 Copa America, compared to days when Colombia did not play. The data are a reminder of how sports can reinforce toxic masculinity in disastrous ways.

Nothing unifies Colombia, a country long polarized by politics and armed conflicts, quite like soccer. Every four years, more than three-quarters of offices provide TVs to watch the World Cup, and absences in the workplace increase by more than 40 percent. Presidential elections are held at the same four-year intervals, about a month or two before. While less than half of eligible Colombians voted in the country’s 2014 presidential elections, 80 percent of the country watched the Tricolor, as the national team is often called.

At the same time, Colombian soccer has a historic connection to violence. The professional men’s league was created in 1948—the first year of what would become a decade-long civil war known as La Violencia—and, over the years, the sport has served both as a tool for peace building and a proxy for war. In the 1980s, Colombia’s drug clans took control of soccer teams across the domestic league, leading to the murder of a referee in 1989 and culminating with the assassination of defender Andrés Escobar by cartel members after he scored an own goal in the 1994 World Cup.

In this context, domestic abuse has received relatively little attention in Colombia compared to other Latin American countries. In 2000, Gerardo Araya, a professor at the University of Costa Rica, conducted the first soccer-specific study after hearing a news broadcast about a surge in cases of intimate-partner abuse during games. He reviewed police files with a colleague and found that, over an 17-month period, reported cases of domestic violence rose on days immediately following men’s soccer games at both the local and national level. Years after they published their findings in a short study, it was picked up by Costa Rica’s National Institute for Women, which now closely monitors domestic-violence calls made during matches. During the 2014 World Cup, emergency calls increased by up to 45 percent, according to figures released by the Costa Rican police.

In England, a 2014 Lancaster University study by Stuart Kirby, Brian Francis, and Rosalie O’Flaherty found a similar pattern by analyzing police data during the 2002, 2006, and 2010 World Cups. When the English team won or drew a game, domestic-abuse incidents rose by 26 percent, but when they lost and were knocked out, the pattern jumped by 38 percent. What’s worse: In England, the violence intensified with each successive tournament.

Although researchers like Araya and Kirby are reluctant to chalk up this phenomenon to notions of masculinity, they point to factors that are nonetheless closely related. Encouraged by global marketing campaigns, men often become emotionally invested in matches. And during World Cups, as patriotism and fandom intersect, fans can begin to identify the team’s successes or failures as their own, often to unhealthy extremes. Studies have documented hikes in male testosterone levels during soccer games; while in Colombia, the government’s Health Observatory in Bogotá found a 54 percent increase in treatment for heart attacks during the 2014 tournament.

At the same time, alcohol consumption soars during games. Beer companies are among the sport’s biggest patrons and advertise heavily during games. UEFA, the governing body of European soccer, has partnered with Heineken for over two decades, while Budweiser has been a leading World Cup sponsor since 1986. Colombia’s top professional soccer league is widely known as the Liga Aguila, named after its sponsor, the Aguila beer company. Indeed, the billions of dollars that alcohol companies spend on soccer have made the two inseparable. “One of the issues with watching [soccer] in such high-profile events as the World Cup is that lots of people use that as an excuse to drink more alcohol,” said Kirby, co-author of the 2014 study in England and now a professor at the University of Central Lancashire. Some Colombian cities loosened regulations to allow for alcohol sales as early as 7 am on the Tuesday when the national team faced off against Japan.

An invested sense of identity combined with an emotionally charged environment and alcohol can create a dangerous environment. Experts and women’s-rights groups stress that soccer itself shouldn’t be blamed—violent men are the problem—but that sporting events tend to loosen social norms. “Sports provide a place where an absolutely regulated society can have a space to decompress,” explained Andrés Dávila, director of the political science department at Javeriana University in Bogotá and author of La nación bajo un uniforme, a book about soccer and national identity in Colombia. Soccer matches provide an escape from daily routine, a space where drinking is welcome—expected, even—and where yelling and swearing are normalized.

“Men don’t know what to do with those kind of emotions,” said Juliana Ospitia Rozo, a psychologist at SISMA Mujer, a nonprofit based in Bogotá that works with female victims of gender-based violence. “They aren’t told what to do by society, or they are told to repress them, so when they’re caught in a sea of emotions, they don’t know how to process them or properly express them.”

FIFA and other soccer-governing bodies remain boys’ clubs and, in the wake of a sprawling scandal, are unlikely to prioritize reducing gender-based violence. Of the 37-member FIFA Council, the organization’s main decision-making body, only six members are women—the minimum mandated by internal rules. The Colombian soccer federation has no women in leadership positions. In 2015, a probe by US Attorney General Loretta Lynch exposed systemic corruption throughout FIFA and sporting organizations in the Americas, leading critics to call for expansive reforms. Moya Dodd, a FIFA Council member at the time, advocated for a fairer gender representation. “Soccer’s halls of power have institutionalized a culture of gender discrimination,” she wrote in a New York Times op-ed. She has since lost her council seat.

In lieu of structural institutional change, efforts to reduce domestic abuse during soccer games have come mostly in the form of public-awareness campaigns. During the 2018 World Cup, England’s National Centre for Domestic Violence released posters depicting a woman with blood running down and across her face in the shape of St. George’s Cross. It read: “If England get beaten, so will she.” In 2015, Costa Rica’s National Institute for Women worked with broadcasters to create an additional scoreboard during a World Cup qualifying match against Haiti, which displayed the number of domestic violence calls the country’s police received in real time. The match ended Costa Rica, 1, Haiti, 0, and Violence Against Women, 31. The scoreboard seems to have had a positive effect: During Costa Rica’s next qualifying match, there was almost a 33 percent reduction in calls reporting intimate-partner violence.

For the most part though, Latin American governments have failed to grapple with violence against women at all, let alone acknowledge the connection between soccer and domestic abuse. A 2014 poll of government officials in Colombia found that over half believed that domestic violence “should be resolved in privacy.” In law enforcement, these attitudes influence how victims are treated, and, at the most basic level, whether domestic violence is even documented. The Nation obtained spreadsheets from Colombia’s national police that recorded the number of emergency calls reporting domestic violence over the last four years. The data, covering city- and region-wide police stations, was incomplete and unreliable, lacking information for months or years at a time. Daniel Ruíz Bermudez, an information officer, said that poor servers, sudden blackouts, and irresponsible data-collecting practices were to blame. Many of the officers, he said, were poorly trained and often miscategorized domestic-violence cases as battery or assault. When the underlying data is inadequate, it’s easy for governments to ignore or trivialize the problem.

In 2008, Colombia passed Law 1257, comprehensive gender-rights legislation, which made domestic violence a crime and outlined protections and guarantees for female victims, including a right to housing, food, and transportation. “Colombia is one of the countries with the best women’s-rights laws in the hemisphere,” said Jineth Bedoya, a renowned journalist at El Tiempo, Colombia’s largest daily newspaper. “The problem is that they aren’t properly implemented.” Survivors are discouraged, even bullied, by the police, the family commissioner’s office, or the local prosecutor.

“The commissioners re-victimize us,” said an elementary-school teacher in Bogotá, who spoke anonymously. She had endured regular beatings by her ex-husband and was repeatedly treated poorly by government employees who were supposed to be helping her. “Why did he hit you? What did you do to make him attack you?” officials would ask when she came looking for protection.

Women’s-rights nonprofits, NGOs, and gender-specific government agencies have tried to fill in services where the federal government fails. Bogotá’s district secretary for women and the ombudsman’s delegate for gender relations offer free legal help for victims of gender-based violence and are setting up educational courses to inform government employees on how to respectfully treat survivors. The district secretary for women also oversees a hotline that women can call to learn about their legal rights or receive counseling and psychological support. But Ángela Anzola, the district secretary for women in Bogotá, admitted, “Most of the time, campaigns only cater to women, urging them to speak out, to not tolerate violence or abuse. But we don’t speak to the men.”

Sandra Luna, a psychologist for Mujer y Futuro, a women’s-rights group based in northern Colombia, agrees. Instead of placing the burden on survivors, she said, more responsibility needs to be leveled on men. But, in her experience, even well-intentioned men are so entrenched in their misogyny that they “don’t have the tools to change.” In 2011, Mujer y Futuro became the first feminist organization in Colombia to offer sustained educational and support sessions for men. Many of the women Luna works with don’t want to end their relationships. “What they want is for the men to change,” she told me. The aim is to complement women’s empowerment efforts with male education to ensure that both partners in a heterosexual relationship are on the same page.

Seven years ago, Mujer y Futuro began offering weekly, two-hour sessions with support groups of five to eight men—all of whom, she said, had been referred to them by the state. They included men with pending legal cases against them, former inmates, and ex-combatants from guerrilla or paramilitary groups. At first, Luna and her colleagues would try to limit the sessions to two hours, but they began noticing that many of the men would stay longer, sometimes for a full extra hour. “That made us realize that men need spaces to talk calmly about these issues, away from beer and spaces where they are motivated to avoid negative attention or show weakness for expressing their emotions.”

Other gender-rights groups are following a similar path, but specifically using soccer to target male behavior. In 2013, the Colombian Football Federation, the country’s professional club league, and UN Women signed onto the advocacy campaign No Es Hora De Callar (It’s Not Time to Stay Silent), created by Bedoya, herself a survivor of abduction and rape. In Colombia’s larger cities, the barras bravas, supporter groups known for their fanaticism and belligerence, agreed to conduct internal workshops to educate fans and promote gender equality and nonviolence as part of the campaign.

That year kicked off an annual tradition—on a designated match day, the starting lineups of every team walk onto the field wearing white T-shirts with “No Es Hora De Callar” printed in black letters. Prominent players from the domestic league were featured in scripted videos calling for an end to gender-based violence. “Scoring a goal means everything to our fans,” stated Fredy Montero, a forward for Millonarios who went on to play in the United States and Europe, in one of them. “Stopping violence against women means everything for our society.” It’s hard to measure the impact of such initiative at such a large scale, but continued research into soccer—and sports in general—can help us understand how men handle emotional situations and how misogyny manifests itself in moments of emotional insecurity. Perhaps sports could help men confront their feelings and help shift culture away from viewing domestic violence as a private, rather than public, issue. For now, though, that remains a distant future. “There is still a very entrenched, macho culture,” said Araya. “There is a lot left to do.”

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