BOCA Juniors’ stadium in Buenos Aires has become a crime scene after the biggest match in Argentina was stopped when visiting players from River Plate were sprayed by fans with an eye irritant believed to be pepper spray or mace.
Public prosecutor Martin Ocampo says La Bombonera Stadium has been closed so investigators can “gather evidence”.
The Copa Libertadores match between the fierce Argentine rivals was played before an estimated 50,000 fans. River won the first leg 1-0 last week, and Thursday’s match was 0-0 when it was abandoned before the second half could begin.
The fan attack on rival players is the latest episode in a series of violent incidents that seem to threaten almost every football match in Argentina.
The game turned to chaos when River players, entering the field for the second half, came out of a temporary tunnel rubbing their eyes and pulling their shirts over their faces. Many poured water over their faces to clear their eyes.
Police and officials waited on the field for more than an hour before suspending the game.
“I can’t say that they [Boca] lost control with the scant information I have,” Ocampo said.
But Sergio Berni, a top Argentine national security official, put the blame squarely on Boca. “Boca is the only one responsible, this is undeniable,” Berni told reporters. “The club neglected to provide internal security.”
Four River Plate players were taken to hospital.
“My whole body hurts,” River player Leonardo Ponzio said. “They threw – I’m not sure what it was – pepper spray at us. This just can’t be.”
“It’s sad,” River coach Marcelo Gallardo repeated several times. “It’s unbelievable what happened.”
Television images showed a fan sliding a hand through the flexible tunnel that shields players entering the field. The images suggested he was spraying some kind of irritant. About half of the crowd left quickly after the match. Hard-core fans stayed around with players from both teams standing at the middle of the field among police and officials.
This was the third match in 12 days between the fierce Buenos Aires rivals. In the first of those encounters, Boca defeated River 2-0 to take the lead in the Argentine first division, moving three points clear of River.
Four days later, River defeated Boca 1-0 in the first leg of the Copa Libertadores tie at River’s Monumental stadium.
Violence or threats of violence are endemic in Argentine football.
The Argentine Football Association has been criticised for doing little to stem the violence, saying it’s a societal problem.
Argentine authorities already ban visiting fans from attending matches, but that has not stemmed the violence as rival hooligan gangs affiliated with the same club often battle over turf, rights to park cars and resell tickets.
Nestor Benitez, a spokesman for the governing body of South American football, said officials were awaiting a report from the referee and were likely to say today how the abandoned game would be handled.
The Copa Libertadores is the most prestigious club competition in South American and is the continent’s equivalent of the Champions League.
Both clubs are former winners, with Boca having lifted the trophy on four occasions. River Plate have won it twice. The current holders are another Argentine team, San Lorenzo.