By Joshua Law
On Wednesday night in the Uruguayan capital, Montevideo, a Copa Libertadores game between Peñarol and Palmeiras provided the sort of drama that only South America’s premier club competition can. In both the best and worst ways possible.
The game itself was a thrilling affair with Peñarol taking a 2-0 first-half lead before Palmeiras turned the game on its head in the second half, taking a 3-2 win and leaving the Uruguayan side in serious danger of an early exit.
But the headlines will be dominated by the lamentable scenes after the final whistle. Immediately after the referee blew to bring proceedings to a close mass brawls broke out on the pitch and in the stands.
Ex-Inter Milan and Galatasaray player Felipe Melo was at the centre of the incident and was the focus of most of the Uruguayan aggression. He responded first by retreating before punching a Peñarol player twice in the face.
Palmeiras goalkeeper Fernando Prass and winger Willian Bigode were also filmed with cuts to the face after being attacked by the incensed Peñarol coaching and playing staff.
According to the Palmeiras Sporting director Alexandre Mattos, left-back Egídio was also assaulted by a Uruguayan journalist, who used a wooden stick as a weapon with which to attack the Brazilian player. One of Peñarol’s goal-scorers, Junior Arias, was also seen pursuing Felipe Melo with a corner flag in his hand.
Whilst this was unfolding the gate leading to the players’ changing rooms had been closed by the stadium security staff, trapping the players on the pitch and exacerbating the situation.
Eventually some of the 20 security guards Palmeiras had taken with them as part of their delegation were able to force the gate open (see the video below), allowing the players to retreat to the relative safety of their dressing room. The fact that the Brazilian club took so many security guards is a sad reflection of the predictability of such events.
The fighting on the pitch also incited violence in the stands, as Peñarol supporters invaded the fenced area reserved for the away fans and were confronted by Palmeiras’ torcida organizada, Mancha Verde. Judging from the television images transmitted by Fox Sports not a single police officer arrived to resolve the situation for several minutes.
It was only thanks to a group of Paleiras fans holding the fence up that the Uruguayan club’s violent, organised barra brava group were unable to inflict more damage.
After the game, Palmeiras’ President Mauricio Galiotte told the media that, “If we had not brought these 20 security guards with us a tragedy would have happened today.” He also lamented the lack of police in the stands to protect travelling supporters.
After all the Brazilian club’s players had retreated, the security guards of whom Galiotte spoke formed a human wall in the corridor of Peñarol’s recently-inaugurated stadium to stop the home side’s fans, coaches, players and journalists from attacking once more.
According to reports from several of the Palmeiras players they had been racially abused by the opposition throughout this game and during the previous encounter between the two sides in São Paulo.
After the first tie in Brazil, Felipe Melo told the press that Gastón Rodríguez had repeatedly called him a monkey. Captain Fernando Prass reported that the same thing had happened to several of Palmeiras’ black players during Wednesday night’s game, though he did not name the culprits.
In a press conference given after his return to Brazil in January Melo told the press that he would not be scared to “give a Uruguayan a slap in the face.”
These events once more call attention to the problems of serious violence and racism in South American football and Peñarol will most probably receive a severe punishment from Conmebol, South America’s football federation.
Despite the fact that he was provoked with racial insults and physical violence, it is likely that Melo will also receive a substantial ban.