Cup of Sorrows: Tragedy overshadows this year’s Libertadores
The Pacaembu terraces, usually packed with swaying hordes of Corinthians’ famously zealous fans, lay grey and silent during Wednesday’s Libertadores game against Millonarios of Colombia. The match was played behind closed doors after 14 year old San José supporter Kevin Douglas Beltrán was killed by a naval flare fired by a Corinthians’ fan during a game in Bolivia last week. The sombre, ghostly setting arguably provided a more fitting memorial to the young Bolivian than the bickering that has spilled forth since his death.
In the immediate aftermath, it was clear that the tragedy had deeply affected the Corinthians players. “I would support the expulsion of Corinthians from the competition, if it means an end to the deaths,” said full back Fabio Santos, while coach Tite said he would gladly give up the club’s Mundial title in return for Kevin getting his life back.
The police moved quickly, arresting twelve Corinthians fans from the part of the terracing from which the flare was fired. All have been charged, ten as accomplices and two as the authors of the crime, and are currently being held in police custody in Bolivia.
CONMEBOL, South American football’s governing body, and famously lax and inconsistent when it comes to on-field discipline and stadium safety (a good example being the insubstantial and entirely arbitrary punishment recently doled out to São Paulo and Tigre for the ruck between security guards and players that brought last year’s Copa Sul-Americana final to a premature end), banned Corinthians fans from both home and away Libertadores games. San José, responsible for public safety in their own ground and whose security staff failed to detect the flare being carried into the stadium, received no punishment.
If there is ever anything good to come out of such tragedies it is the hope that lessons will be learnt, measures put in place so that they will never repeated. This is often easier said than done in South America, where even if the will is there, the funds and infrastructure required to enforce new regulations and inspect safety arrangements may not be. And it is harder still when it comes to football in the region, where intense rivalries and an almost innate sense of victimisation make forward progress difficult.
And so it has proved. There has been no talk of improved stadium safety conditions, or of a fresh approach to dealing with the torcidas organizadas – the twelve men held in Bolivia are all members of Corinthians Gavioes da Fiel group. And now it appears that even the apparently straightforward legal case against the perpetrator(s) is becoming blurred.
Last weekend, the Gavioes lawyer, one Ricardo Cabral, announced that the individual responsible for firing the rocket was not amongst the men in Bolivia but instead a 17 year old boy, now back home in São Paulo. The youth would be handing himself in to police on Monday morning – conveniently allowing him time for a starring, if disguised, appearance on one of the country’s biggest TV shows on Sunday night.
“There’s no doubt he’s the one who fired the flare,” announced a confident looking Mr Cabral – surely the first time in legal history that a lawyer has so enthusiastically proclaimed his own client’s guilt. But he can afford to be smug. Brazil does not usually extradite its own citizens, and the impunity granted to minors is well-known – even if convicted, the youth in question will most likely be given a sócio-educativo sentence, the equivalent of a not so much a slap as an affectionate tickle on the wrist. Meanwhile, runs Cabral’s argument, the twelve men held in Bolivia should be released.
It may be that the story is true, and that the youth really is guilty. But legal and political chicanery is deeply engrained in Brazilian society. As a minor, and conveniently out of the reach of the Bolivian justice system, if he is a sacrificial lamb, he could hardly be better qualified.
At least the lawyers are busy. Corinthians, who had briefly considered withdrawing from the Libertadores in protest against their punishment, are instead appealing the ban, while a group of four fans managed to obtain court injunctions that allowed them to enter the Pacaembu on Wednesday. Meanwhile, authorities in Bolivia remain unimpressed with Cabral’s version of events. “How did he get out of Bolivia? Who helped him? The authorities don’t have to consider evidence that comes from somewhere else,” said the local prosecutor. Given the often prickly relationship between Bolivia and Brazil, it is not hard to feel a diplomatic incident looming.
What seems certain is that not much will be done to improve safety conditions and crowd control in South America’s often antiquated, and sometimes dangerous, football grounds. Many Libertadores stadiums in countries such as Paraguay, Bolivia and even Argentina are not much better than English lower division grounds, and while Brazil will benefit from a rash of new World Cup facilities, the rest of the continent will not be so lucky.
“I was in favour of both Corinthians and San José being banned from the competition. This was an opportunity for CONMEBOL to take a real stand against the violence and confusion that pervades South American stadiums,” said Leonardo Carvalho, a lifelong Corinthians fan from São Paulo. It is, it seems, an opportunity that once again will not be taken.Tagged in: football
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