Copa Libertadores marred by violence and last minute rulings
SAO PAULO (AP) — The South American soccer confederation CONMEBOL is facing renewed criticism after its marquee Copa Libertadores tournament was marred by fan violence and contradictory last-minute rulings.
Tuesday’s match between Brazil’s Santos and Argentina’s Independiente had to be called off 10 minutes before the final whistle after local fans angry at a CONMEBOL ruling fought with police and threw fireworks onto the pitch. The second leg of the round-of-16 match was tied 0-0 when Santos supporters started ripping seats from the stands and later stormed the pitch.
Hours earlier CONMEBOL awarded Independiente a 3-0 win in the first leg, despite that match also ending 0-0, arguing Santos fielded an ineligible player.
That decision was placed under further scrutiny when CONMEBOL issued the opposite ruling Wednesday in a similar case involving River Plate. The Argentine club also fielded an ineligible player, midfielder Bruno Zuculini, in the first leg against local rivals Racing, but the result in that match — also 0-0 — was allowed to stand.
Confident River Plate then beat a distressed Racing 3-0 and qualified to the quarterfinals after a match full of tension in Buenos Aires, with three red cards and harsh challenges from both sides.
CONMEBOL said it made a mistake in February when River Plate asked about suspended players for matches in South American tournaments, and the soccer body did not include Zuculini in the list.
Racing executives said they will take the case to the Court for Arbitration of Sport (CAS).
The Santos case, meanwhile, centered around a 3-year-old red card, as Uruguayan midfielder Carlos Sanchez was still carrying a suspension in CONMEBOL competitions after being sent off in a Copa Sudamericana match in 2015. The clash against Independiente three weeks ago was his first game back under the governing body’s jurisdiction since then after he left to play for Mexico’s Monterrey.
The continental body said the 0-0 result from the second leg would stand, meaning Independiente advanced.
Santos’ 17-year-old striker, Rodrygo, who was recently signed by Real Madrid, said he would have acted like the fans did if he was in the stands.
“This is shameful. These fans are totally right,” he told journalists. “We need to understand how fans feel. We went to Argentina, played as hard as we could, drew 0-0 and then we arrive here losing 3-0. CONMEBOL is responsible.”
However, Rodrygo said later on social media that he regretted his statements and that he is against fan violence.
Santos right-back Victor Ferraz said the CONMEBOL decision was making him consider retiring.
“CONMEBOL gave this qualification to Independiente, this is unbelievable, unexplainable and I can’t quite believe it,” the 30-year-old player said on social media. “When I saw that chaos on the pitch I could only think that those that caused such suffering were not there to feel the fear, the anger they had caused.”
Officials at the Pacaembu stadium in Sao Paulo said 60 seats were ripped out during the incident.
River Plate president Rodrigo D’Onofrio told Fox Sports that his club’s case was different from Santos’.
“CONMEBOL had to tell us which players were not eligible and their response was clear: the only one that could not play was Nacho Fernandez. We can’t ask God, we asked CONMEBOL, the top body of the region. We complied with their rules,” he said.
Zuculini played seven matches in the current edition of Copa Libertadores. In August 2013, as a Racing player, he was sent off in a match against Lanus in the Copa Sudamericana. The midfielder was initially suspended for four matches, but his penalty was reduced to two games of absence in 2016.
CONMEBOL argued Racing needed to file their case 24 hours after their first leg for it to be successful, but the club only registered it two weeks later. None of the other teams that played River Plate in the Copa Libertadores registered any complaint about Zuculini.
CONMEBOL has become a scandal-ridden body in recent years amid a series of graft scandals involving its previous top leaders. Three of its last presidents have been arrested.
On Wednesday, former CONMEBOL President Juan Angel Napout was sentenced by an American court to nine years in jail. He was arrested at a luxury hotel in Switzerland in 2015, when he was the sitting leader of the South American body, as part of the U.S. Department of Justice’s widening bribery case into FIFA.
Napout was also sentenced to return $3.3 million that were paid in bribes in exchange for broadcasting rights. He has already served eight months of his sentence in New York.