Amateur football: a call to end extreme violence on and off the field

Williams Alexander Tapón allegedly died by suicide after he assaulted a referee during a game

In Argentina, football is lived intensely, on and off the field and in professional and amateur tournaments alike. That intensity often leads to extreme violence, as part of the “football folklore.”

This week, football players and associations are calling for better policies after a brutal attack on a referee, which was followed by a media furore and the death of his aggressor.

24-year-old Williams Alexander Tapón was about to be arrested for attempted homicide for hitting and kicking a referee in the head during a game. Facing media backlash and attempted murder charges, Tapón was found dead on July 18, in what his family and the prosecutor believe was suicide.

The aggression happened during an amateur five-a-side football tournament in Sarandí, in greater Buenos Aires, last Saturday. A video that went viral on Monday showed Tapón punching referee Cristian Paniagua (36) in the face after he drew a yellow card. Paniagua fell on the ground and Tapón kicked him on the head, leaving him unconscious.

Tapón was banned from playing in amateur leagues, and Paniagua reported him to the police for aggression. Prosecutor Mariano Zitto said he found out about his death right before he was going to order his arrest for attempted homicide, a charge that can have a sentence of 10 to 15 years of prison.

Williams Tapón and Ariel Paniagua before the game started

“These events are a consequence of people’s life trajectories and violence and inequity issues, which have an impact on sports clubs or any other place where they spend time,” said Ana Lozano, president of the civil neighbors association Florentino Ameghino (Avefa, by its Spanish acronym). “These violent situations don’t happen by chance,” she told Télam.

“There are many violent situations in amateur football games. Insults between fans, to me and to players; players kicking others and overwhelmed coaches,” said Ariel Antico, former Argentina National Futsal team goalkeeper.

Antico and Lozano agreed that Argentina’s cultura del aguante (fan culture) and “football folklore” create a mystique around going to extreme lengths to cheer on your team — songs that feature racial and homophobic slurs are commonplace in the bleachers — which “brings out your most aggressive side, whether you are a man or a woman.”

There currently are no unified acting protocols at a national level against violence in amateur leagues. Teams usually agree to rules which state that players and entire teams can be kicked out of the tournaments for violent behavior.

During amateur matches, sanctions are common when players get violent, “but there aren’t any other protocols, and there is no police presence, so that’s why it happens so often,” said futsal goalkeeper Jean Lucas González.

“Sometimes, you know someone who is nice and cool [outside of the field], but when the game starts they transform completely, and that brings out the worst in you,” González said.

According to the interviewees, emotional comfort, building a sense of belonging and explicitly identifying violent situations could help end violence in the football fields.

“Clubs have a responsibility. While players are in that space, we have to seek the best way to comfort them emotionally, to prevent and act upon violent situations. Punitivism doesn’t have the transforming effect we’re looking for to be a less violent society,” Lozano said.

“Instead of just kicking players off their teams, clubs need to talk with their teachers, coaches and teammates to figure out a long-term solution. It needs to be a cultural change,” he said. 

“Especially in Argentina, there’s tough work to do.” 

If you need help, please call these suicide prevention hotlines:

  • Argentina: 135 from Buenos Aires city and Greater Buenos Aires; (011) 5275-1135 o 0800-345-1435 from the rest of the country.
  • United States: 988.
  • United Kingdom: 112.


All Right Reserved.  Buenos Aires Herald