“I’ve left my truck just round the corner from here, is it going to be ok?” Marcelo Betbese’s first query after meeting in the quiet Buenos Aires backwater of Villa Crespo is not what you might expect from a former member of an Argentinian hinchada – equivalent to the Ultras of Italy. Those infamous individuals are the (mostly) men that give local football its legendary noise and colour, with streams of flags and banners proclaiming loyalty to the club, incessant drum lines and ingenious chants that evoke everything from undying love for their team to memories of past bloody encounters with the police and rival hooligan groups. They are also the fearsome individuals linked to countless illicit dealings, often with institutional and political connivance, from the running of car parking syndicates around the stadium to drug trafficking, gigs as hired toughs and even murder. 

When the media wrings its hands about the state of the game, it is the hinchadas – or the barra brava (wild gang) – which are more often than not singled out as the root of the problem. Marcelo, however, left behind that life more than a decade ago. Now all that remains of the terrace personality is his nickname. His birth certificate may say Betbese, but to his friends and in Racing Club folklore he is Marcelo Stones, founder of the Racing Stones and its most famous ex-member. Marcelo swapped the stands for the poker tables and now plays professionally across the world. We meet days after he jets back in to Buenos Aires from Macau and our second chat took place with him in a Las Vegas hotel room on the eve of the World Series of Poker. His wild curls are confined underneath a cap bearing the legend Spingol, an Argentinian betting website that sponsors his travels, and the rest of his clothing is also bedecked with the company’s logo. Be it in the stadium or in casinos, his passions have a way of consuming him and he wears them with pride. 

Looking back at his time at the head of the Stones, Marcelo makes constant reference to his ‘sickness’. “I’m cured, I used to go to every single game, wherever it was,” he says. The image repeats throughout the conversation. “I managed to cure myself, really it was the distance that that started to cure me and right now I am just a Racing fan, I am not a passionate supporter like I was before.” The distinction is important, as Stones possibly took football fanaticism as far as humanly possible before finally turning his back on the terraces. 

The Racing Stones was not a planned venture. The group came about in the mid-1980s, a time when Argentinian football was blighted even more than today by constant clashes between rival fans that made the average stadium resemble a battleground. Marcelo, then a teenager, would save up the money for the school bus fare given to him every day by his mother by walking 40 blocks from his Villa Crespo home to college. Those funds would purchase him a ticket for Racing at the weekend, the Avellaneda club having returned to the Primera División after two years in the purgatory of the second tier. But the young fanatic was not content merely with crossing the putrid Riachuelo every fortnight to visit Racing’s Cilindro home, nor to limiting himself to games in and around Buenos Aires. He was already looking further afield. 

“The Stones began with Fernando Romero, a kid from San Martín, we were the founders of the group,” he recalls. “I met him on the road, we used to go to away games on the train to Rosario, to Córdoba. Back then it was not so common for fans to travel to see their teams, sometimes even the barra would stay at home. But Fernando and I went all over the place and we had the idea to form our own group to keep costs down and travel more safely. We used to rent coaches, split the cost among the passengers and go all together.”

South American hinchadas place as much importance on their symbols as freemasons do. Marcelo and his new group chose the outstretched tongue of the Rolling Stones, painted sky blue and white in homage to the club, to represent them on the road and in the stadium. The choice owed more to the rolinga fashion prevalent at the time, typified by long hair and dungarees and first introduced into youth culture by Stones fanatics, than the band itself – Marcelo for one admits he is no great fan of Mick Jagger. The Racing Stones’ first banner, meanwhile, carried the legend “An inexplicable passion” and is present at every Academia1game. The budding hinchada travelled together to Avellaneda2  on the 95 bus that left from Palermo, and quickly built up a cult following. “We did our first trip to Corrientes, a game against Deportivo Mandiyú,” Marcelo recalls. “We got 37 people together, rented a coach and went up there. 

“From there I remember we went over to Paraguay with Fernando and another kid, Racing and Olimpia were playing one of the first Supercopas [the now-defunct competition open to past winners of the Libertadores]. It was not that far from Corrientes to Paraguay, the coach went back to Buenos Aires and we three hitch-hiked to Paraguay. That trip united all those who had gone, we went to more games with the same guys and we decided to stand together in the stadium, to the right of the barra.” But what truly cemented the Stones’ budding reputation was an away game against Chaco For Ever – “a disastrous match, 0-0 without any decent chances” – at which Marcelo and Fernando went with the barra as the only fans in the visitors’ end.  A photo of the “Inexplicable passion” banner, flying defiantly solo on the otherwise bare fence separating the terrace from the pitch, made it onto the cover of Racing’s official magazine, under the title “The only positive thing about the Chaco outing”. Not even the Guardia Imperial, the club’s ‘official’ barra, had taken their banners to the clash, leaving the new kids on the block as the stars of the show. The Stones took up their place to the right of the Guardia Imperial on the vast expanse of the Racing popular behind the home goal, while a third group, dubbed La 95, which had splintered from the original gang of friends that took that bus to Avellaneda, lined up on the left.

As might be expected, the Guardia Imperial had an ambiguous reaction to these young interlopers. Marcelo insists that he never aspired to join the official faction; he saw his role on the terraces as different. “We managed to live alongside the barra but we were not interested in joining them, we had our families and jobs, we had to get back to Buenos Aires on Monday to work,” he points out. “If you went with the barra you might come back on the Wednesday, if there was a problem you had to stay with them, you cannot say, ‘OK, I’ve got to get back because I’ve got work.’ That is not an option.” While the heads of the group were reluctant to give the upstarts a place on the terraces, Marcelo calmed their fears. They were not going to muscle in on their business interests, nor make a claim to their official status. “We are going to pick up the fans on the right for you, it’s great for you,” the Stones assured them.

“We had a few arguments with the barra but they knew we did not want to do business, we did not want money or power, and they let us grow. When they realised we could be a threat we were already too big, there were a lot of people who loved us and they could not get rid of us. There was a time when they wanted to, but in the end they treated us as a necessary evil. They even told the club directors that the stuff we did in the stands was down to them, so they could ask for more money.” With no plans to supplant the Guardia Imperial as the ‘official’ barra, the Stones put their energy into a rather more uplifting side of Argentinian football – what Marcelo unfailingly calls la fiesta

The former fanatic lights up when he remembers his role as party planner-in-chief at Racing. The build up to a big game, a derby against Independiente, say, or against Boca Juniors, would begin long before kick-off had even been scheduled. One of the matches that has gone down in Academia folklore came against Independiente in 1996. Just after Claudio López netted for the away side, a plane flew over the Independiente stadium with a banner boasting of the 11 years that had passed since the Rojo’s last victory over their Avellaneda rivals. Marcelo organised that elaborate taunt, which electrified the Racing support, and also arranged for the then-Independiente coach César Luis Menotti to be pelted with sugar as he came out to the bench. There were other hits, including an incredible 30,000 rolls of paper that covered almost half of the Racing pitch prior to another derby clash, widely reckoned to be one of the best collective fan displays in Argentinian football history. The most daring, meanwhile, came in Boca’s Bombonera home. Marcelo and a friend dodged past the fearsome ’12’ barra the day before an away game and asked to be let into the stadium, posing as tourists. Once in la Bombonera they slipped into the away end and hid 80 flares inside one of the bathrooms, before making a speedy retreat. Racing beat the Xeneize 6-4, Diego Maradona and all, and the second tier of the stadium was ignited by the colour and heat of the incendiaries. “That was my most satisfying moment in the stands,” he admits. 

Without the complicity of directors, the Stones used a more collaborative method to raise funds for la Fiesta. They would do a whip-round on the terraces, although it took time to persuade some fans to hand over their money. “People did put in. At first it was tough; we used to go round with a bag and though people knew who we were, if they gave it to you they thought it was going straight in our pockets,” Marcelo recalls. “But afterwards you would watch the game and see your money going in the things we did, something huge, and after that we did not have to tell them, ‘Erm, we’re getting some money together.’ People would come up to you and pitch in.” Perhaps the most incredible story from that era was the Stones’ and Marcelo’s building of the Tita Mattiussi training facility, today one of the finest youth academies in Argentina. Back in the 1990s, the likes of Diego Milito did not have a place to train as teenagers. 

Having heard of this predicament, Marcelo first targeted a patch of land out near Buenos Aires’s international airport in Ezeiza. But the local political boss Alejandro Granados, Stones maintains, had his own ideas for the plot and sent a group of heavies to warn off the potential usurpers. “You’re a long way from home, you can keep coming here but you’re always going to be playing as the away team,” Marcelo was told. The conversation was conducted with perfect courtesy, but the message was clear enough. A plot nearer the stadium in Avellaneda, belonging to the old Provincial Railway, was located and, despite being embroiled in a judicial dispute between Racing and a local rugby club, represented a far more viable project for a new youth facility. There were problem: the area was overgrown, covered in rubble and other waste, while homeless people used the dilapidated warehouse on site as shelter. But Marcelo and his closest friends were determined to create the complex and gave over the best part of the next two years building it from the ground up. “At that time I was at the peak of my powers on the terraces, I had a certain power over the fans and I could persuade you to come down and work on the academy,” he explains. Convincing his own hinchada, more accustomed to the adrenaline of the chants, flares and fights in the stands – “We did everything we could to avoid fighting, but if we were challenged obviously we stood our own” – proved rather more difficult. 

“In the group that started the job there were three or four Stones but people from all walks of life joined in. I used to go round the terraces saying, ‘Hey, we are going to build an academy – why don’t you come down and help on Saturday?’” he recalls. “This was around 1999, the group had already started to get out of hand ideologically. I could tell a kid from the Stones to come down to pick up rubble, but there was no chance – at 10 am he would have just gone to bed, completely fucked up after going out dancing. But with the regular fans, they did not want to miss the chance to join in something like this. Although the problem was making them keep the faith, they would go down to the site, see all the rubbish and they’d say, ‘Nah, you’re crazy!’” After a monumental effort, the Tita Mattiussi training complex saw light at the start of 2001. Marcelo had for the previous two years taken on the role of president of the cooperative set up to administrate the land. “I had lost my bearings at that point, it was madness,” he admits, looking back on a time where he would work seven days a week on the ground while, out of principle, refusing to take a single peso for his efforts. 

While Marcelo was toiling in the rubble of Tita Mattiussi, named for a former kit lady who lived her entire life in the Racing stadium and came to be as loved as any star player, things at La Academia itself were deteriorating fast. The president Daniel Lalín, a diminutive professed ex-communist who drove a Ferrari and smoked Cuban cigars, decided in the late 90s to dodge the club’s immense debts by declaring bankruptcy. The manoeuvre worked for some time, until a judge in the Province of Buenos Aires picked up the case, looked at the mounting red ink on the balance sheet and determined a winding up order for one of Argentina’s oldest, most successful clubs. The court-appointed accountant Liliana Ripoll delivered the coup de grace in front of television cameras as she said the words most dreaded by any supporter: “Racing Club has ceased to exist.”

Marcelo lived through that time as a political militant alongside the regular barra. He joined the Guardia Imperial in chaining himself to the club’s administrative headquarters on Avenida Mitre in protest during the worst days, losing a girlfriend in the process after he had promised to meet her parents for dinner the same evening. The Stones fought tirelessly against the winding up order, but the conclusion was the worst possible defeat for the fanatic: the arrival of a private company, Blanquiceleste, to take over club matters and the arrival of new president, although most Racing fans will only refer to him as ‘the administrator’, Fernando Marín. 

The figure of Marín still looms over him and occurs frequently in conversation. During a conversation months after the original interview, Marcelo took exception to radio declarations from the Fútbol para Todos chief, who repeated his claim to Radio del Plata that he did not make a single cent from his time at Racing. “He’s a shameless bastard,” he said. Those sentiments were echoed in a post he made from the casino table in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he was disputing the World Series of Poker, accompanied by a table of chips and dollars. “Listening to Fernando Marín pissed me off, and I went for it!” he wrote. More than 15 years may have gone by, but the wounds left by Racing’s time in private hands are still to heal. 

The animosity was mutual. Marín quickly accommodated himself with the Guardia Imperial and officially took over the club in December 1999 although by that point the club’s privatisation was a fait accompli. But the businessman knew he had no chance of coming to an agreement with Marcelo, a fervent believer that football teams must remain in the hands of their fans. Marín called the president of the Tita Mattiussi “the terrorist” and the two years they worked alongside one other in Racing were marked by conflicts. 

“I have always had the same opinion of him, and I still do,” Marcelo said of Marín. “He is a person with a great business mind. But he only cares about that and it showed at Racing. When he could no longer make money out of the club he left his associate [Fernando De Tomaso] in charge and disappeared,” he says. De Tomaso would later be convicted for fraudulent administration during his time at El Cilindro and sentenced to community service, although the case is still winding its way through the labyrinth of the Argentine justice system. Marín, meanwhile, was accused of funnelling profits from the sales of players out of the club and into his own pockets while transferring his own liabilities onto Racing’s balance sheets, although the charges are yet to yield a sentence.  

“De Tomaso’s tenure is Marín’s responsibility. Blanquiceleste was terrible for Racing. He only worked with me through his employees and subordinates, according to him I was not good enough to speak directly to him.” Marcelo also clashed with the new administrator over the issue of rent for the use of the training complex, which was paid infrequently and always with reluctance. The official barra, the police, the AFA, he holds, were all used to pressure him into submission. 

“I had already had a nasty case with the police, in a game at Estudiantes stadium in La Plata. The rumour was out that we were going to demonstrate against the judge in charge of the case and when I got to the stadium I was arrested and released only the next day,” he remembers. “Something similar had already happened to me under Lalín, the same methods, before a home game against Vélez Sarsfield. That started to drain my strength and if there was one thing that killed me it was having to go and see Racing without enjoying it. I had to watch my back for the police, the barra, or some thug for hire. There was clear persecution from the police, but the order came from further up.” 

The final straw came in 2001 with a bizarre kidnapping attempt. Marcelo was driving through the Buenos Aires neighbourhood of Barracas when a group of toughs attempted to bundle him into a car. Fortunately he was accompanied by two members of the Stones and fought off his would-be captors. “Two minutes later my phone rang, and I was told I got away this time. At the same time my mother was called and told the same thing and they gave her the address of the kindergarten my son attended,” he explains. “The point was, I should stop breaking people’s balls at Racing. There was a big intelligence operation, it was obvious they had been following me, that sort of thing does not come cheap. It was not a fair fight.” The barra, meanwhile, openly chanted against the Stones and it often came to blows in the stands. Marcelo had seen his removals business gutted by his efforts for Racing, and the judicial proceedings against him had robbed him of access to his son after separating from the mother. Enough was enough. 

He grabbed what was left of his savings and abandoned Argentina, heading for Brazil. There he opened a bar on the Rio de Janeiro beachfront, far away from the sweat and testosterone of El Cilindro. Racing’s Apertura title win in 2001 was a bittersweet moment as he watched from hundreds of kilometres away in a Rio shopping mall. He was perhaps the only Racing fan who could not enjoy their first league crown in 35 long years: the club was now Marín’s, a business, and an institution that had done everything possible to destroy him. His venture on Flamengo beach ended in violence when a group of local thugs beat him up in a bid to muscle in on his business. Unbowed he started again, this time in Spain where he worked as a waiter and selling souvenirs. Once he had made a little money, he moved once again to Brazil, to Morro Branco, where he ran a guesthouse. There he was bitten by the poker bug. 

Marcelo remains on good terms with his former comrades. When his packed poker schedule allows, he will join them for a barbecue at the Tita, or do the rounds at Supporters’ Associations. He shows me with pride a photo from December 2014 that shows him hanging precariously from the crush barriers on the Racing terrace as the club downed Godoy Cruz with a goal from Ricardo Centurión to win their first title since that 2001 triumph. But times have changed. “Right now the Stones are just another fraction of the barra,” he says. The group has also been stained by violence. At the time of writing three members of the group stand charged in connection with the death of journalist Nicolás Pacheco, found lifeless and face down in the swimming pool at Racing’s Villa del Parque annex in the summer of 2013, with the murder trial finally beginning in November 2016 after years of inaction and protests for justice. 15 years after his defeat at the hands of Blanquiceleste, and despite the return to democracy in 2008 when lawyer and Stones associate Rodolfo Molina was elected president, Marcelo still feels betrayed by fans’ submission to privatisation. 

“Racing have the best fans in Argentina on match days, but they are the worst during the week,” he says. “They are only interested in seeing the ball in the net, the rest doesn’t matter.” He would have preferred to see La Academia relegated to the third division, but with their name and structure intact, rather than hand over power to the likes of Marín. With the arrival of former Boca Juniors president and business magnate Mauricio Macri to power in Argentina and the advent of the Superliga amid institutional chaos in the AFA3, the possibility of privatising clubs has become an issue again. Marcelo remains firmly against the notion. “I hope football can resist that,” he says. “In Europe companies can sometimes be beneficial for some clubs. But it is a different world over there, where laws are made to be respected. Here it just cannot work and history shows that. 

“The only people who benefit are the companies and the clubs are left in ruins. I will always be against it. There are notable examples of clubs being run by their members that are profitable.” The barras, meanwhile, he does not see losing their power any time soon. The political willpower to remove that violent element, he says, is lacking in Argentinian football; Javier Cantero, the ex-president of Independiente who made a concerted effort to remove the club’s hooligans from everyday administration, suffered a comprehensive failure in that respect as he was hung out to dry by the AFA and other clubs. Nor does he see in the near future the possibility of away fans, that crucial part of the football mosaic, returning to stadiums: “It is not in the barras’ interests. When they go on the road they have to pay for the coaches, take a whole load of kids with them. They run those trips at a loss. With home games, on the other hand, it is pure profit, they have control of the car parking, the merchandising, ticket resales, that is where they make their money.” The ideals he fought so hard for, a group of fans that, while no angels, purely supported the team, battled corrupt presidents from the stands and financed themselves through the passion of other supporters, ultimately could not stand up against the lure of quick profits. The Racing Stones in Marcelo’s era made their own T-shirts and sold them on the stands with the distinctive tongue motif to raise funds for la Fiesta; now, their merchandise is hung alongside Guardia Imperial keepsakes in the club’s official shops. 

For over a decade the fan’s home was on the baked concrete of the terraces in stadiums across Argentina. Since leaving the Stones and taking up poker as a profession his lifestyle is one of constant travel, countless hotel rooms and jet lag. It is not an existence most of us would choose, full of risk and sacrifice, living from one poker hand to the next. But he would not change it for anything now. Racing still has a place in his heart, like any supporter, but he has learnt to control his ‘sickness’. He will never be fully cured, though; the passion that once drove him to smuggle a backpack full of flares into the bear pit of la Bombonera, to build a training complex where only rubble and weeds existed, to risk everything in a futile battle with those he believed would destroy the club he loved so deeply, that passion might be tamed but it will never be extinguished.