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Incident at Boca Juniors vs. River Plate Match Shows Ugly Side of Fandom

Soccer is a great sport. From the gamesmanship tactics to the awesome goals that are scored, there’s a reason the sport is called “the beautiful game.”

But last week, the ugly underside of the game made an unfortunate appearance.

Last Thursday, South American power clubs Boca Juniors and River Plate went into half time tied 0-0 with Boca Juniors leading the two-leg aggregate 1-0 in the Copa Libertadores tournament. But the two sides would not restart the match. As the River Plate, who were the visiting team, came out for the second half, Boca Juniors fans were able to exploit a hole in the inflatable tunnel and sprayed pepper spray as the players walked out.

The result was devastating. River Plate players had to be treated in the center of the pitch, and about an hour after the incident the match was called. The penalty for Boca was equally as harsh. The team was kicked out of the tournament, allowing River Plate to advance, forced to play its next four home matches with no fans and barred from taking fans to its next four away fixtures.

While that’s a harsh penalty for a team to take for the result of its fans’ actions, it’s necessary to bring these incidents to an end.

“Hooliganism” was a predominant problem in most of the world as late as the 1980s or so. Liverpool fans were at the center of one of the more infamous hooliganism incidents in 1985 in the Heysel Stadium disaster. Before that year’s European Cup between Liverpool and Juventus, Liverpool fans breached a barrier separating them from the Juventus fans. The Juventus fans then retreated to a wall, which eventually collapsed, killing 39 people and resulted in English teams being banned from the competition for five years and Liverpool for six.

Fortunately, those incidents have become, less and less frequent over the past decade or so. The vast majority of matches are played with incident, particularly in Europe. But in South and Latin America, it’s still a massive issue. Hooliganism incidents still occur, especially surrounding high-profile matches like this “Super Classico,” and deaths are still an issue. According to a CNN report that cited a report by Salvemos del Futbol, a reform group, five people died at soccer matches in Argentina between 2000 and 2009. That has to change.

Of course, it’s really unfortunate that the team and especially the players have to pay for something they had no control over. I can understand their frustration that they got kicked out of a tournament even though it looked like they were well on their way to advancing. For that reason I wish there was another way.

But there’s not another way and this is an issue that has to be erased. For people to have their lives threatened just going to a soccer game in as soccer-crazed and as fairly stable as Argentina is unacceptable. Thankfully, CONMEBOL, the governing body for South American soccer, saw it the same way and issued the harsh penalty. Hopefully this institutes the necessary changes to eliminate this behavior.