- Associated Press - Monday, June 27, 2011

BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA (AP) - The mayhem that swept River Plate’s stadium following the famed soccer club’s relegation to the second division left 89 people injured and is threatening the upcoming Copa America tournament.

The riots were sparked by rampaging fans humiliated by the team’s demotion for the first time in its 110 years despite a history that includes more league titles than any Argentine club. In addition to those injured, police said 55 people were detained.

Fans were sprayed with high-power water hoses _ inside and outside the stadium _ with police using tear gas, rubber bullets and hand-to-hand combat in a futile attempt to control the rioting. Inside the stadium, fans ransacked concession stands, ripped slats from seats and swung them at police.

As fans scattered, they set fire to vehicles and rubbish bins around the stadium in the leafy suburb of Nunez, with many smashing windows and breaking into shops in upscale areas.

Some had said the match should have been played in an empty stadium. Anibal Fernandez, head of the Argentine government cabinet and senior assistant to President Cristina Fernandez, said Monday there was “no reason” to play without fans.

“These are not River fans, these are 300 vandals,” Fernandez told Telefe television. “They need to be identified, detained and never allowed back into the stadium.”

A prosecutor ordered the stadium closed until the turnstiles can be inspected. There are suggestions the seating capacity of 40,000 was exceeded by 12,000. The stadium also serves as Argentina’s national stadium and is set to hold the Copa America final July 24.

Argentina is the host nation for the Copa America _ the South American national team championship _ with play opening Friday in La Plata, 35 miles from Buenos Aires. Argentina and Brazil are the favorites to meet in the final, which again could test security at the aging stadium.

Prosecutor Gustavo Galante suggested the closure could last for a month, but also hinted it might take only a week to gather evidence.

“The stadium will remain closed until this is completed and all the evidence is in hand,” Galante told The Associated Press.

CONMEBOL, the governing body of South American soccer, insisted the match will go on.

“Fans can rest easily,” spokesman Nestor Benitez told The Associated Press. “The Copa America final will be played at River Plate’s stadium.”

Ernesto Cherquis Bialo, a spokesman for the Copa America and the Argentine Football Association, said it was too early to know if the final would be moved. He also said AFA’s executive committee would meet Thursday and decide on sanctions against River Plate.

Sunday’s rioting was set off after River Plate drew 1-1 with Belgrano at Monumental Stadium in the second leg of a relegation playoff, which followed a 2-0 loss four days earlier in the first leg. That match was suspended for 20 minutes when River Plate fans ripped through a fence and raced across the field to taunt their own players.

River Plate’s drop is astonishing, as if Real Madrid were demoted to Spain’s second division. The club has won 33 league titles _ 10 more than Buenos Aires archrival Boca Juniors _ and two Copa Libertadores titles. The club’s last league title was 2008.

The chaotic scenes Sunday pitted River Plate hooligans _ known as “Los Borrachos del Tablon” _ the Drunks in the Stands _ against a force of 2,200 police, the largest to ever patrol an Argentine soccer match.

The images were shown on television worldwide, which is sure to dim some luster from the Copa America and pressure the Argentine Football Association and its president, Julio Grondona.

River Plate President Daniel Passarella said after the game he would not resign.

“They will take River’s presidency away from me over my dead body,” he said.

Passarella, the captain of the 1978 Argentina team that won the World Cup, faces huge problems trying to rejuvenate River Plate.

The club has debts estimated at $19 million and is sure to experience a steep drop in revenue in the second division. River Plate received about $7.5 million from TV rights in the past 12 months. In the second division, it will receive about $1 million.

Many of River Plate’s top players are sure to leave, joining other stars who have been sold in recent years to European clubs. Sponsors may also seek new contracts at reduced rates. Coach Juan Jose Lopez is expected to quit, replaced by someone with experience in the second division, where play is physical and the fans are intimidating.


Associated Press writers Vicente Panetta and Debora Rey contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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