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 By Sam Kelly

Boca Juniors-River Plate controversy showing no signs of ending

In what has seemingly felt like an eternity, even though it's been less than three days at the time of writing, CONMEBOL has finally made official the penalties Boca Juniors will face after the events of Thursday night's Copa Libertadores match versus River Plate at Boca's La Bombonera stadium.

When that CONMEBOL ruling finally came, after hours of delays, it wasn't what had been expected by the press. Boca were thrown out of this year's Copa Libertadores, as widely predicted, but while there had been speculation of a ban from next year's continental cups, and a two year stadium closure at international level. There were even suggestions that FIFA wanted even harsher punishments, all Boca were given was an order to play their next four international home matches behind closed doors, and their next four international away games without fans, as well as a US$200,000 fine.

Although the punishment was a long way from the 'exemplary sanction' that had been talked about, Boca will appeal, though a member of the CONMEBOL disciplinary committee told Argentine news channel Todo Noticias that the ejection from the Copa this year was one item not up for appeal.

So River are through to the quarterfinals, where they'll host Brazil's Cruzeiro on Thursday night. The next Superclasico is a friendly scheduled for June 9 in the city of Cordoba, with fans of both clubs supposed to be present. After this much bad blood and bitterness, though, it remains to be seen whether it will really go ahead.

To backtrack, given the nature of the rivalry between Boca and River, Thursday night's Copa Libertadores last sixteen second leg always looked like a huge challenge for Dario Herrera. Just 30 years old, and having never officiated either a Superclasico or a Copa Libertadores match before, the young referee's appointment hadn't been without controversy. As it was, though, Herrera did his job well enough -- but was spectacularly overshadowed by events entirely beyond his control.

The match was the third meeting between the bitter rivals in just over 11 days; they also played each other in the league two weeks ago. Over an hour after the second half should have started, the match was finally called off, with four River players suffering first degree burns after being sprayed with what was initially thought to be pepper-spray, but later turned out to be a homemade mixture of pepper and acid.

The rumours and accusations started immediately. With TV reporters updating from the pitch, Boca manager Rodolfo Arruabarrena seemed incensed that River's players and technical staff didn't want to kick off the second half -- even as Ramiro Funes Mori, Leonel Vangioni, Matías Kranevitter and Leonardo Ponzio removed their shirts to reveal burns, and poured water over their faces, their eyes puffed and reddened. The scenes were so heated that at one point, River president Rodolfo D'Onofrio stormed onto the pitch to remonstrate.

Boca Juniors' next four Copa Libertadores matches will be played behind closed doors.
Boca Juniors' next four Copa Libertadores matches will be played behind closed doors.

Then came the television replays that showed what happened. The video (see above) showed a man covering his face at the front of the stand and appearing to cut (or maybe reach) through the chain-link fence at pitch side, before lifting the flap of fabric at the back of the inflatable tunnel designed to allow visiting players to enter the pitch safely, and either dropping or throwing something.

Shortly after, the picture returned -- a friend of one of the television commentators had messaged him to say they'd recognised the man, and that he was currently banned from the club's premises. Boca president Daniel Angelici told journalists afterwards, "This is a worldwide embarrassment. I want to identify the ten delinquents responsible."

After the suspension of the match was finally announced, there was a bizarre waiting game as both teams stood on the pitch awaiting sufficient police to arrive for River's squad to leave safely. By the time they did, most Boca fans had left, but there was still a fair sized group in the stands chanting and -- scarcely believably, perhaps, to those outside Argentina -- taunting River for being too cowardly to play on. Even Boca centre back Daniel Diaz told local sports channel TyC Sports the next day, "It would seem logical to play on." The strangest bit of all came when Boca's players finally began to file off the pitch, and turned round to applaud those still gathered in the stands, just moments after some of those fans had showered River players and staff with projectiles as they left.

After a Superclasico, Buenos Aires (and Twitter) is traditionally festooned within hours with posters from fans of the victorious club mocking those of the other team. There were few such efforts this time, and by far the most prominent simply read "Disculpa River" -- "Sorry River. On the 14th May 2015 we shamed ourselves in front of the world. No more violence," above a Boca badge.

River's four affected players were taken to a hospital burns unit. Ponzio and Funes Mori were told to take 72 hours rest, while Kranevitter and Vangioni were ordered to put their feet up for 48 hours. They'll miss no domestic games--- all football in Argentina has been called off this weekend in mourning after Banfield youngster Emanuel Ortega died of head injuries sustained playing on loan in the lower divisions last week.

As well as this, there was a police report which, in spite of that TV footage of someone appearing to throw something into the tunnel from the stand, and in spite of photographs showing spray stains on the back of the outside of the tunnel, stated the substance was sprayed from the pitch into the tunnel. Some reports, including the one linked above, cite River substitute goalkeeper Julio Chiarini as having insulted a policeman for spraying him, but the video audio of the supposed argument isn't good, and on Friday Chiarini told a Radio America journalist that he hadn't said any such thing.

"I'm considering resigning my position as Argentine FA Vice-President, because it's clear to me we're not moving forward [with these issues]," Angelici said on Saturday morning, hours before CONMEBOL officially announced their ruling.

Like Angelici's current standing within his country's FA, the cloud of uncertainty continues to hang over Argentine football, and one almost has the sense that there is some ways to go before this particular incident will have a final resolution.

Sam Kelly is based in Buenos Aires and has been one of ESPNFC's South America correspondents since 2008. Twitter: @HEGS_com

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