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Surge of soccer violence overshadows Latin America's leading sport
By VICENTE PANETTA, Associated Press Writer
February 21, 2007
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) -- Projectiles thrown onto the field at a Copa Libertadores match in Paraguay. Fan brawling in Argentine stadiums. Fist fights at a match in Uruguay and restive spectators in Colombia, Mexico and Chile.
Resurgent soccer violence in Latin America, where Argentina has cornered a reputation for having some of the most violent hooligans, is raising concern among clubs and soccer regulators alike as a rash of incidents overshadows the sport. And soccer authorities are paying attention, worried about how to police a sport whose passions cross national boundaries.
"We are worried about these incidents in Latin America," said Nicolas Leoz, president of the South American soccer confederation, known as CONMEBOL. "This violence has nothing whatsoever to do with genuine soccer."
In Argentina, virtually no weekend goes by without violence.
Such unrest in Latin America comes at a time of fan trouble in Europe, where police used tear gas at Tuesday night's Champions League match between Lille and Manchester United. Incidents this season in Italy, Germany and France have evoked memories of hooligan violence of the 1980s.
On Feb. 11, during the opening of Argentina's first-division Clausura tournament, rival hooligan groups backing River Plate battled at the Monumental Stadium complex, sending picnicking families fleeing from a recreation area ahead of a match.
Four people were wounded and Argentina's government suspended play at the stadium, site of Argentina's 1978 World Cup victory, for five home matches by one of South America's most famous clubs.
River president Jose Aguilar, criticized for failing to crack down on the so-called "barra brava," expelled five fans suspected of involvement in the brawl. A "barra brava" has a chance to obtain free tickets to scalp at a profit, can control parking revenues from stadium side streets during home matches and even gets trips to road games paid for by others.
Jaiver Castrilli, a top regulator of the sport in Argentina, said team executives can no longer cast a blind eye on the "barra brava," saying it was time to crack down on such "scum."
The same day as River's brawl, a 15-year-old boy died and 12 others were injured in the western city of Mendoza during fan fighting at another match, police said.
In Argentina alone, there have been at least 145 deaths linked to the sport and fan incidents since 1939, the first year authorities said they began counting the victims.
"The Argentine influence is very great," said one soccer fan, Felipe Garces, a member of the "Red Baron" group backing America of Cali, Colombia.
In Colombia, stadiums in Cali, Bogota and Medellin are frequently plagued by fighting. Last week, Colombian police had to break up rival fans who fought each other with sticks and stones during a practice by a club in a suburban Bogota park.
In Mexico, the local federation ordered teams to stop giving away tickets to rowdy fan groups. In Chile, repeated violence led officials to suspend two Universidad de Chile matches when it deemed security plans inadequate. And in Peru, 10 people were injured by flying sticks and bottles during a fight between two local clubs.
Last week in Paraguay, a Copa Libertadores match between Cerro Porteno and Brazil's Gremio was interrupted three times and had to be suspended three minutes from the end after fan fighting and objects were tossed on field. One player was struck on the thigh but not seriously hurt and authorities announced thousands of dollars in fines against both squads because of their rowdy fans.
Associated Press writers Eduardo Gallardo in Chile, Carols Rodriguez in Mexico, Jairo Anchique in Colombia and Pedro Servin in Paraguay contributed to this report.
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