In the past five years, anybody who has watched Argentinian football, whether official games or friendlies, will have seen that in the stands there is always an empty spacewhere fans cannot go. These are the “neutral zones” or “lungs”, the means the football and state authorities have chosen to separate one group of fans from another, as though empty space can end hostilities. The lungs are an admission of defeat to those who seek to disrupt the spectacle.

They represent the surrender of the authorities and in that sense are not a solution to the problem of violence. The organisationSalvemos al Fútbol[Let’s Save Football], presided over by Mónica Nizzardo, a director of the National B side Atlanta, numbers the dead from football violence at 261. Of those, 161 have been killed during the reign of Julio Grondona, the Fifa senior vice-president, as president of the Argentinian Football Association (AFA). Having taken control in 1979, he is in his ninth term of office thanks to the peculiarities of the voting system and his remarkable ability to cling to power.

The barra bravas, Argentina’s ultra and hooligan groups, constitute a problem that is becoming increasingly serious not because there is no solution but because there is no will to impose a solution. Various governments, both the dictatorship and the democracy, have repeated their desire to eliminate the barras, but they have ended up being their accomplices in a mutually beneficial game. The authorities provide protection through money, free tickets, and subsidised buses while offering the opportunity to resell tickets and deal drugs in return for the barras’ agreement to act as hired hoods to break up demonstrations, to vote the ‘right’ way in elections and to daub graffiti on the streets.

Every club in every division has a number ofbarra bravaswho can count on the police not only to protect the areas they see as their own, but to stand back and turn a blind eye to what goes on in those areas, which has included murder and the infliction of grievous injuries.

Amílcar Romero, the foremost analyst of the violence in Argentinian football and the author of several books on the subject, points out that not only does the football system generate its own violence, but that it reflects wider societal trends. For years, huge numbers of Argentinian people have seen their purchasing power diminish while losing access to culture and jobs. That is reflected in the stadiums, where football and its attendant violence provide a stimulus to thousands of youths otherwise excluded from productive activity (a fact that offers one of the few coherent explanations as to why so many games are played during office hours). The ritual of ‘defending the colours’ — which offer an identity to lives otherwise largely devoid of purpose — is used to justify criminal activities.

Over the past few years a change has occurred and the tradition of fighting for the colours has often turned inward, so that fans of the same team but differentbarras end up fighting among themselves. That has been particularly true since 2009. That was the year when clubs saw their incomes increase through theFútbol para Todos[Football for All] scheme by which the government took the rights to broadcast top-flight games from TyC, part of the powerful Clarín media group, insisting all games be shown live on public television. They paid 900 million pesos (£130m) per year, as opposed to the 180 million per year the clubs were getting under the previous deal, both ensuring that the clubs could pay their players (their failure to do so and the players’ threat to strike having sparked the whole initiative) and conveniently hitting Clarín, which had consistently opposed both the government of the late Néstor Kirchner (2003-07) and his wife, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (2007-11 and 2011-present).

That increase in revenue made the clubs and their business far more interesting to hooligan groups, who had been moving into other areas of criminality, opening the way for rival barras. As potential profits rose, so those original groups sought to reassume their positions of dominance and, as an investigation by Salvemos al Fútbol demonstrated, the inter-barras problem became one of intra-barras.

Squabbling for a share of the pot at home has left fans with less time and energy to battle with their supposed rivals. The result of the conflict becoming internecine has been a change in the nature of the violence. Not only has the death rate risen, but the violence is no longer confined to the stadium and match days, trespassing instead into the street during the normal working week. The violence that was once contained within the world of football has now passed into the daily life of Argentinians.

The extent to which that is the case is detailed by the reporter Carlos del Frade in his investigation into the city of Rosario, Central, Ñuls, la ciudad goleada, fútbol y lavado de dinero [Central, Ñuls, the Hammered City, Football and Money-Laundering]. He paints a picture of a sordid world in which a youth coach of Rosario Central, the former player Aurelio Pascutini, was forced to flee the city after his house was shot at because he refused to accept that the barras should take the profit from the transfer of promising players. Meanwhile, the other club in the city, Newell’s Old Boys, which once produced such stars as Gabriel Batistuta, Abel Balbo, Juan Simón, Jorge Valdano and even Lionel Messi, fears for its future because frightened parents now take their children to other clubs.

In Buenos Aires in 2007, a gun battle broke out among two rival River Platebarras, terrifying fans who were peacefully sharing an asado. The incident became known as ‘the Battle of theQuinchos’ and was triggered by a dispute over the distribution of the €20million River had received from the sale of Gonzalo Higuaín to Real Madrid. The president of River at the time, José María Aguilar, was widely blamed for having let matters get out of hand. When, in 2011, River were relegated for the first time in their history and fans fought running battles with police after their defeat in a play-off, Aguilar, far from being reprimanded or ridiculed, was rewarded by Grondona with a position in Fifa that brought a high salary, a secretary and a driver.

Even ordinary fans have now started to turn against the barras. When Newell’s and Independiente last year took the unprecedented step of banning singing on the terraces, fans condemned the barras, accusing them of being “mercenaries”. Insisting on the ‘lungs’ to separate rival fans was pointless; now they are needed between different factions of the same team’s fans.

It’s a situation almost too complex to manage. At every game in the stadium of Atlético Cipolletti in the province of Río Negro in Patagonia, for instance, you can hear two competing chants, each urging on the home team to perform better. The rivalbarras work together to set traps for opposing fans but are then just as likely to turn on each other.

A similar scenario was played out in the final days of the 2011 Apertura when Boca Juniors faced Belgrano of Córdoba at the Bombonera. In the week leading up to the game, Rafael Di Zeo, the former leader of La 12, the biggest of Boca’s barras, was released from a four-year prison term. He wanted to resume command while his successor, Mauro Martín, insisted he should retain control. The club directors, terrified of a major incident a few weeks before club elections, gave a separate terrace to each group from where they hurled insults at each other and supported their team with competing chants.

But perhaps the most telling indication of the new reality came at the World Cup in 2010. There was widespread surprise and scepticism when Marcelo Mallo, the vice-president of Quilmes and a close associate of Aníbal Fernández, the chief of the cabinet of the Argentinian president, Cristina Kirchner, announced the creation of a government-supported body, the United Fans of Argentina (HUA), to travel, expenses-paid, to South Africa to support the Argentina national team. Many of the members of HUA were known hooligans, drawn from a wide range of first- and second-division clubs. Boca refused, because they had their own funding, but rivals fans from other clubs had no problems cooperating.

There were no major incidents in South Africa, but that venture shows the fundamental issue in Argentinian football. How can you fight against violence when the state funds hooligans’ trips to the World Cup, when many of the hooligans are effectively employed by state officials? And then there is the supplementary question of how the struggle can be taken seriously when the club presidents who oversee the greatest chaos are rewarded with Fifa sinecures.

During a match between Vélez Sársfield and River in the 2010 Clausura, a young fan called Walter Paz was killed. The advocate of City of Buenos Aires, Graciela Muñiz, sought explanations. Vélez sent confused medical certificates, while AFA acted decisively — and sent a full team-list for both sides detailing substitutions, cards and goals. Such are the priorities of AFA.