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Last Updated: Tuesday, 30 November 2004, 12:14 GMT
Kidnappings prompt player concerns
Matias Almeyda
Almeyda walked away from Independiente without playing a game
The kidnapping of the mother of Brazilian star, Robinho, has prompted concerns that South America's best players may now have another reason to leave the region.

It has already happened at least once in Argentina, which is in the grip of a wave of kidnappings.

In recent years, Argentines' love of the beautiful game has attracted the wrong sort of attention.

Since the country's devastating economic crisis struck almost three years ago, kidnapping gangs have targeted footballers as a means of extorting huge sums of money.

"Practically every month and a half they kidnap, or try to kidnap, someone linked to the world of football - that's to say, players, their family, or directors and their families" Eduardo Ovalles has published a study on the phenomenon, told BBC World Service's World Football programme.

"Although there has been a reduction in the number of cases -- we had 8 cases in 2002, 10 last year, and in the first 10 months of this year, just three -- the frequency of 1 and a half kidnappings or attempted kidnappings every month has been maintained."

Emblematic case

One of the most emblematic cases in Argentina was that of Matias Almeyda.

After eight years playing in Europe for the likes of Seville in Spain and Serie A's Lazio, Almeyda returned to his homeland and signed for Argentine club Independiente - but then left before he had kicked a ball.

David Nalbandian
Tennis star David Nalbandian has also faced threats
"The first day that he signed the contract he'd already made his concerns known, because he'd received the news that his family had appeared on a list of potential kidnap victims," said Julio Comparada, Independiente's director general.

"He told me he didn't realise that the violence and the situation in South America and Argentina was so serious; he'd spent a number of years living in Europe.

"The truth is he couldn't get used to his family living with continuous police protection and getting nervous at every traffic light they stopped at... So he decided to move back to Europe."

Comparada added that this had cost the side the chance to have a player of international prestige and experience on their books - "but beyond his being a player for Independiente, I think Argentine football lost out."

However, it is not just Argentines linked to the world of football that have been targeted - kidnappers last year threatened to snatch relatives of Wimbledon runner-up David Nalbandian.

And before this year's Olympics, police uncovered a plot to kidnap the family of Argentine NBA star and gold-medal winner, Manu Ginobili.

Kidnapping wave

All of this is taking place against a backdrop of a wave of kidnappings.

Last April, more than 100,000 people marched in Buenos Aires to demand government action.

It followed the kidnapping and brutal murder of 23-year old university student, Axel Blumberg. His father, Juan Carlos, is a modestly wealthy textile engineer. And for the most part, kidnapping gangs target wealthy individuals and their relatives.

Brazilian midfielder Robinho's mother was kidnapped
That is why footballers make such tempting targets - or at least, why they used to.

"Three years ago, when we had two or three cases more or less one after the other, you could say that the kidnappers were focusing on football players," Fernando Cohen, a sports writer at the Buenos Aires Herald, said.

"But that it seemed like to be a period; it's ended. I would say now football players are at the same risk as any other wealthy person."

However, footballers still have several qualities that most wealthy individuals lack - namely that they're in the public eye; they earn huge amounts of money; and perhaps most importantly, everyone knows how much they earn.

"Carlos Tevez of Boca - one of the most important players in the country - was going to be bought for up to $18m by a foreign club, so these figures are obviously of interest to criminals," Mr Ovalles insisted.

"But in Argentina, the phenomenon came down a little from last year - when we had 10 kidnaps or kidnap attempts throughout the country - this year we have just three.

"From my point of view this has happened for very reasonable and logical reasons: they're avoiding publishing the amounts that players are being contracted for."

Kidnappers are forcing stars to flee
08 Nov 04 |  World Football

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