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Friday, 24 May, 2002, 14:57 GMT 15:57 UK
Argentine hooligans revere Maradona
Diego Maradona
Hooliganism may be known as the English disease, but in Argentina football violence has become a national crisis.

There were five deaths and dozens of knife and shotgun casualties during the 2002 season.

The first incident this year involved the fans of Boca Juniors and their local rivals, River Plate. The match was abandoned, and one person was shot dead.

The last programme in the Hooligans series looks at the violent fans of Boca and their close relationship with Diego Maradona, one of the greatest footballers ever.

La Bombonera, Boca Juniors' ground
La Bombonera, home to Boca's fans
Maradona, a Boca fan, first played for the club over 20 years ago. He has remained close to the club ever since.

Boca is one of Argentina's main football clubs, and boasts the country's largest group of hooligans. Their leader, Rafael "Rafa" Di Zeo, claims they have at least 2,000 members.

Every major and minor league football club has hooligan organisations, known as barras bravas (the tough gangs). The Boca gang call themselves La Doce - player number 12.

Over the years, La Doce has acquired an appalling track record of violence. It is common for sticks, clubs and even knives to be used in fights with their rivals. Some are in prison for murder.

Fan power

But they hold great power within the club. La Doce once pressurised the club's authorities into making Maradona captain of the team.


My relationship with the guys is excellent

Diego Maradona
And they used their power to make or break other players' careers to support him. This is a gesture Maradona never forgot.

Despite the tainted reputation of La Doce, he remains friends with the current leaders - Rafael "Rafa" Di Zeo, his brother Fernando and Santiago Lancry.

Maradona says: "My relationship with the guys is excellent. We get together through their songs, through the passion for the colours of our team... then they go and make their mistakes and I do mine, we certainly don't enter into an association of crime, that's not my style."

Around 50 people have been murdered at football matches in Argentina over the past 10 years. But Maradona believes that the game is not to blame.

He says: "Football is a reflection of the violence that takes place on the streets of my country every day."

Farewell

In November 1999, Maradona officially took leave from the sport that made him famous the world over. His testimonial was a spectacular event in Boca Junior's stadium.

"Rafa" made sure it was something Maradona would never forget.

He said: "The match stopped because we let off fireworks. And Diego became all emotional, he started crying. Then he walked up to where we were and thanked us. That was his surprise. He'll never forget it".

The mood was buoyant in the stadium as La Doce rolled out banners thanking "God for being an Argentine".

After the collapse of Argentina's political and economic system, Maradona felt the need to put things into perspective.

"If I was God, my country would not be in the state it's in, there would be no hunger, football would not be violent... I'm simply Diego Armando Maradona, but I trust in God to save my country," he said.

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