Mayhem at River Plate threatens Copa America

Buenos Aires (Argentina): The mayhem that swept River Plate`s stadium following the famed soccer club`s relegation to the second division left 89 people injured and is threatening the upcoming Copa America tournament.

The riots were sparked by rampaging fans humiliated by the club`s demotion despite a history that includes more league titles than any Argentine club. In addition to those injured, police said 55 people were detained.

Fans were sprayed with high-power water hoses — inside and outside the stadium — with police using tear gas, rubber bullets and hand-to-hand combat in a futile attempt to control the rioting.

As fans scattered, they set fire to vehicles and rubbish bins around the stadium in the leafy suburb of Nunez, with many smashing windows and breaking into shops in upscale areas.

A prosecutor ordered the stadium closed until the turnstiles can be inspected. There are suggestions the seating capacity of 40,000 was exceeded by 12,000. The stadium also serves as Argentina`s national stadium and is set to hold the Copa America final July 24.

Argentina is the host nation for the Copa America — the South American national team championship — with play opening Friday in La Plata, 35 miles from Buenos Aires. Argentina and Brazil are the favorites to meet in the final, which again could test security at the aging stadium.

Prosecutor Gustavo Galante suggested the closure could last for a month, but also hinted it might take only a week to gather evidence.

"The idea is to preserve the crime scene so we can find out with precision what happened," Galante told radio Continental on Monday.

Sunday`s rioting was set off after River Plate drew 1-1 with Belgrano at Monumental Stadium in the second leg of a relegation playoff, which followed a 2-0 loss four days earlier in the first leg. That match was suspended for 20 minutes when River Plate fans ripped through a fence and raced across the field to taunt their own players.

River Plate`s drop is astonishing, as if Real Madrid were demoted to Spain`s second division. The club has won 33 league titles — 10 more than Buenos Aires archrival Boca Juniors — and two Copa Libertadores titles. The club`s last league title was 2008.

River Plate President Daniel Passarella said after the game he would not resign.

"My feet are firmly planted," he said.

Passarella, the captain of the 1978 Argentina team that won the World Cup, will face huge problems trying to rejuvenate River Plate. The club has debts estimated at $19 million and is sure to see a steep drop in revenue in the second division. Many of its top players are sure to leave, joining other stars who have been sold in recent years to European clubs.

The chaotic scenes Sunday pitted River Plate hooligans — known as "Los Borrachos del Tablon" — the Drunks in the Stands — against a force of 2,200 police, the largest to ever patrol an Argentine soccer match.

The images were shown on television worldwide, which is sure to dim some luster from the Copa America and pressure the Argentine Football Association and its president, Julio Grondona.

Bureau Report

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