South America tries to ignore crowd troubles

November 3, 2006

RIO DE JANEIRO, Nov 3 (Reuters) - Barely a week goes by without at least one game somewhere in South America being stopped by crowd violence.

Last weekend, a pitch invasion brought a premature end to a promotion play-off in Bolivia, while a first division match in Venezuela was abandoned because of a crowd riot.

Yet, the authorities seem to have adopted the tactic of pretending it is not there and hoping it will go away.

The standard response to crowd violence has been to finish the game later, when everyone has forgotten about it, or simply let the result stand.

The example has come from the top in the South American Football Confederation (CSF).

This year, two games in the Libertadores Cup - the South American equivalent of the Champions League and the CSF's showpiece tournament - have failed to finish because of crowd trouble.

On both occasions, the CSF, helped by the fact that it was supporters of the losing team who caused the trouble, decided that the result should stand and the matter should end there.

Two weeks ago, however, the CSF were faced with a less clearcut situation when the Copa Sudamericana quarter-final first leg between Colo Colo and Gimnasia-La Plata in Santiago was halted.

Play was abandoned in the 86th minute when Gimnasia's Nicolas Cabrera was hit by a lump of concrete thrown from where the Colo Colo fans were standing.

As the Argentines had already made three substitutions and Cabrera could not carry on, the referee had no choice but to stop the game.

Bizarrely, Colo Colo were winning 4-1 at the time and appeared to fear the worst as Gimnasia said they should be awarded a win.

'One idiot has thrown all our good work down the drain,' said coach Claudio Borghi.

Allowing the score to stand did not seem to be an option this time.

After all, Gimnasia had been on the attack when Cabrera was struck and a second away goal would have given the tie a new complexion.

The CSF, however, apparently decided that football is a predictable game, that Gimnasia probably would not have scored - and upheld Colo Colo's 4-1 win.

Colo Colo, who went on to win the second leg 2-0, were hit with a two-match international ban for their Monumental stadium.

But, as they can simply relocate to the nearby National Stadium where they will be backed by a fervent 60,000 crowd for their semi-finals, it was nothing more than a symbolic punishment.

The CSF's leniency has been followed around the continent.

Five first division matches have been interrupted by crowd trouble in Argentina this year, yet no serious punishments have been meted out.

In Ecuador, Barcelona nearly benefitted from the appalling behaviour of their fans during a derby away to Emelec earlier this year.

After Emelec went 3-0 ahead early in the second half of the Guayaquil derby, Barcelona fans vandalised the toilets, threw pieces of wash basins onto the pitch then ransacked commentary boxes forcing radio reporters to flee.

Play was abandoned but the Ecuadorean federation simply decided the match should be completed the next day behind closed doors.

When the match re-started, Emelec had three players sent off, Barcelona pulled two goals back and came within a whisker of forcing an unlikely draw.

Brazil is one country which has taken a tougher line.

A series of missile-throwing incidents prompted the disciplinary tribunal to hand down heavier punishments in which teams are forced to play at least 200 kilometres from home and behind closed doors.

Gremio were given a hefty eight-match ban after their fans burned portable toilets and threw them into the moat around the field during a derby away to Internacional in July.

Although this was later reduced to three games, the loss of revenue was still a hefty blow to the Porto Alegre club.

The most encouraging example, however, comes from Bolivia, which is usually considered a lightweight in South American soccer.

The Bolivian federation are pressing for an 18-month home ban for Tarija-based club Ciclon, after their fans invaded the pitch and attacked the players of visiting Destroyers in last Sunday's promotion playoffs.

Ciclon directors could also face bans of six months to three years and any fan found to be involved could face a life ban from any Bolivian stadium.

The final decision lies with the disciplinary tribunal but, if such punishments are meted out, it would be an example Bolivia's bigger neighbours might do well to follow.