At the turn of the last century, an educator and football obsessive named Isaac Newell founded a soccer team. He was a transplanted Brit: hence, the team's peculiar English name. "Old Boys" meant "graduates": the team's first-ever players were students at Newell's Colegio. The year was 1903. That means Newell's Old Boys predates three of the four major American sports leagues by decades.
In the century since, Newell's has won the Primera División, Argentina's top league, six times, and have seen many storied names play on its pitch. Argentina's soccer godhead Diego Maradona passed through Newell's at the end of his career, a bit tubby by then, but still a feverish goal-hound. Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi, the greatest player alive, came up through the team's youth system before heading to Spain; if he were to return to play in Argentina, he's said, it would only be for Newell's.
The Primera División is a national institution: its Buenos Aires titans, Boca Juniors and River Plate, have arenas the size of Yankee Stadium. And while the league can't compete with the talent that plays in Germany, Spain, Italy, or England, where top-flight Argentine players regularly head for massive paychecks, its fans are just as famously manic.
And it's exactly because the players and coaches are not as famous or as well-paid as their counterparts in Europe—and, therefore, easier to fire or sell—that the stakes can feel higher for everyone involved: every game, there are livelihoods on the line. As Newell's current star Maxi Rodriguez has explained, "If you lose three or four games in a row, the coach is likely to be thrown out. Fans are pushing you to win all the time and managers are forced to make rash decisions. This generates … madness."
Technically, the barra brava's responsibilities are simple and clean. They are the loudest and most loyal supporters; they wave massive banners and bang drums and chant out their love. At games, there are common practices: marijuana is plentiful, but cocaine use is frowned upon within the actual stadium; the cops look the other way if you're sneaking in flares and fireworks, but generally not if you try to sneak in firearms. Weapons are, then, mostly cruder things: sticks, stones, and sharp things like knives or shivs.
In their home stadium, El Coloso del Parque, the Newell's barra brava take up the populares, a standing-room only section on one of the goal-sides of the stadium. There, the respect that exists toward the barra brava is most palpable: there is a middle section of the populares, fitting about 600, which all fans know to leave empty until the barra brava make their grand, bombastic entrance.
Fights with the barra bravas of other teams occur, but not in the stadium: for the last few years, in the hopes of curtailing just such violence, fans of the away teams are not allowed to enter the Newell's stadium, and Newell's fans are not allowed to travel to away games.
But all that sound and fury is just the forward-facing element of the operation.
Their actual money-making methods are murky by design. According to prosecutors and the local media, there's a wide range in Newell's barra brava's portfolio, with drug sales on the one end and ticket scalping on the other. Wherever they can get their hands, they just might: a mafia, in jerseys and bucket hats.
Most deviously, for fans of the game: the barra brava has direct relationships with the players. According to one insider who's worked with both the barra brava and Newell's, it's a tribute-paying system: the players give the barra brava game-worn jerseys and pay for barra brava travel to away games. "In exchange," the insider says, "the barra brava protects them and does not insult them."
As for how the team itself feels about this—well, it's complicated. Publicly, they deny any connection to the barra brava: "There is no relationship" is all a Newell's publicist will say to me. Privately, they establish truces themselves. It's understood that the barra brava's ticket-scalping is predicated on the team itself handing them the tickets; according to the insider, Newell's gives the barra brava around 3,000 tickets a match, to sell or distribute as they choose.