The players just stood there, mouths open, utterly aghast. For a few slow-motion seconds, then a few more, until minutes were passing. Nobody could quite believe what they were seeing. Tears streamed down the cheeks of defender Luiz Alberto.
Emotions were always likely to be high at the Arena Joinville, where Vasco da Gama – one of Brazil’s traditional heavyweights – were making one last stop on their way to the second flight. They needed a miracle to survive. They didn’t get it.
Yet Luiz Alberto is not a Vasco player and the relegation, when it came, was destined only to be a footnote to the events of the afternoon. The real story took place in the stands, where scenes of mindless, surreal violence cast the blackest of clouds over the final weekend of the Campeonato Brasileiro season.
The images spoke for themselves. Whole swathes of the crowd engaged in a sickening, to-and-fro battle in the terraces, kicking, scratching and hollering, swarming like termites on fallen enemies, using metal bars as improvised weapons. Thugs set upon prone bodies, smashing heads into the floor.
It took unfathomably long to restore order, but police eventually emerged to counter the swell with tear gas and rubber bullets.
In the aftermath of the mess, finger pointing began over the slow response time and evident understaffing at the stadium. The blame, it appears, rests with Atlético Paranaense, who, as nominal hosts, were responsible for organising security measures.
The match was only being played in Joinville, over 100km away from the club’s Curitiba base, due to another instance of crowd trouble in October. “They punish teams with stadium changes yet let in the people who caused the problem,” lamented Estado de S. Paulo columnist Artero Greco.
A handful of supporters were rushed to hospital. Thankfully there have been no fatalities, although 19-year-old William Batista remains under medical observation. Three Vascaínos are likely to be charged with attempted murder, while 19 Atlético fans have been identified by police this week.
It isn’t the first time fan safety has been called into question this year. Vasco and Corinthians fans locked horns at the Mané Garrincha stadium in Brasília earlier in the season, while the latter club were also implicated in the death of 14-year-old Kevin Espada, who was hit by a flare during a Copa Libertadores game in Bolivia. Countless other scuffles between torcidas organizadas (organised supporters’ groups) have taken place away from stadiums.
These are just the latest illustrations of a long-standing problem. Research carried out by sports paper Lance! revealed that 155 people were killed by football-related violence in Brazil between 1988 and 2012. The death toll over the last two years, meanwhile, is believed to be nearly 40.
This pattern will only be resolved by forceful, far-reaching action on the part of the CBF, who have in the past shown a disturbing lack of commitment to the cause. The power of the organizadas – which are often subsidised by the clubs themselves – must be curtailed, while sanctions have to be more severe when incidents occur.
If law-abiding fans suffer in the short term, so be it. Brazil’s sporting authorities must stop bowing to the lobbying of wealthy club owners and force teams to play behind closed doors. Aggressors must be banned from stadiums for life. In the words of pundit Paulo Vinícius Coelho, "the only way to stop the violence is to make sure people that they'll pay a high price for it.”
Standardised security rules are also essential. As Sunday’s events chillingly demonstrated, the safety of supporters is not something that can be left to chance.
Jack Lang (Twitter: @snap_kaka_pop)