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Apr 18, 2012

Something in the water?

It was a great weekend for football headlines in South America's southern cone. In particular in Argentina, which we'll get to in just a moment, but no piece about the weekend just gone would be complete without at least a passing mention of Salvador Cabanas, who turned out for his boyhood club in Paraguay's third division on Saturday to make his return to professional football 26 months after he was shot in the head in a Mexico City nightclub. An amazing comeback.

If Paraguay was all sunshine and happiness for the return of a national hero, there was significantly less unity down here in Argentina, where by the end of the weekend one started to wonder whether someone had put something in the water. It was an astonishingly bad-tempered weekend.

We'll start with the most minor incident, in San Juan, where local side San Martin were hosting Velez Sarsfield. With Velez leading 3-1 with five minutes remaining, a San Martin fan got onto the pitch and others caused so much trouble in the stands that the referee was forced to abandon the match. At the time of writing the AFA still haven't confirmed anything, but the result is likely to stand.

If those incidents got little coverage, it was because events earlier in the day had overshadowed them considerably. As River Plate are spending this season (at least) in the second division, there are no competitive meetings between them and Boca Juniors, unless both reach the final of the newly-created Copa Argentina. That means the biggest derby in the country this season is in the Greater Buenos Aires suburb of Avellaneda, where Independiente hosted Racing on Saturday at the distinctly un-Argentine hour of midday.

The match itself was typically hard-fought, with Independiente deserving the 2-1 lead they went into stoppage time with, if perhaps not fully deserving the 4-1 win they got after two very late goals. The fallout, though, was extraordinary. Racing's Colombian striker, Teo Gutierrez - almost sold to Benfica in January after falling out with the club's directors and then manager, Diego Simeone - was sent off very late on for insulting the referee.

When his team-mates arrived in the dressing room they weren't pleased. Goalkeeper Sebastian Saja punched him, at which point Teo (as he's known here) delved into his kitbag and took out what's been variously described as a toy gun, a paintball gun, an air rifle, and (by a friend of mine with contacts at Racing) a real gun. Predictably, chaos ensued. Teo has been told he'll never play for the club again, as (for the second time this year) has former club captain Claudio Yacob, the midfielder who Arsene Wenger has made enquiries about. Yacob's crime was swapping shorts (yes, I said shorts) with an Independiente player post-match.

What on earth Teo was doing with a gun, or something that looked like one, in the dressing room no-one seemed quite sure, until on Monday his father offered an explanation: "He had it because he was going to play paintball after the game." But of course. Gutierrez Sr. was pretty disparaging of Saja's role in things, as well. "My son offered Saja a fight, and he ran off like a coward." I hope I'm not the only one thinking that so would anyone with any brains if they were having a gun waved at them.

Of lesser importance in all this chaos was the minor matter of Racing manager Alfio Basile - in his fourth spell in charge of the club - stepping down after the defeat. His side haven't started well, and halfway through the Torneo Clausura they're 17th, with only two wins from their first ten matches. This with essentially the same squad that finished second to Boca Juniors in the Apertura in December under Simeone. Former Argentina manager Basile has been replaced very quickly by 31-year-old Luis Zubeldia, who took charge at Lanús at the age of just 27 after injury ended his playing career, and who recently left Barcelona of Ecuador. His first test is in the Copa Argentina on Wednesday night.

Saturday, then, was amusing for the neutral - a day of mala lecha, or bad blood (literally 'bad milk'), in Argentine football - but it wasn't over. On Sunday I went to Argentinos Juniors to watch them play Belgrano, and though the game itself wasn't good (it finished 0-0), there was almost a fistfight during the first half with Belgrano's goalkeeper racing to the halfway line to join in. When Argentinos' Juan Sabia was sent off midway through the second half he looked ready to thump the assistant refeeree who'd called his foul, and took a long time to leave the pitch.

Later that day, Tigre, relegation-threatened and needing a title challenge to stay up in Argentina's bizarre three-year-long relegation system, got an unlikely 2-1 win over champions Boca Juniors with a late own goal from defender Rolando Schiavi. Afterwards a group of Tigre fans were waiting to chant taunts at Boca, and particularly forward Pablo Mouche, who'd made an obscene gesture to the home fans after Boca's late equaliser. Police being absent, a scuffle ensued between Boca players and the fans, during which Uruguayan striker Santiago Silva swung a punch which ended up fracturing two of his fingers.

To even things up, River Plate also managed to cause some controversy which made the headlines, from their position in second place in the second division. During their match against Huracan (a 2-0 win), the referee at one point had to ask the crowd to stop chanting racist abuse, equating Boca Juniors fans to Paraguayans and Bolivians (two nations which, in Argentina, are sadly frequently used as shorthand for 'illegal immigrants'). After the game, some t-shirt sellers had wares which read 'The envy of every Boca fan', with a picture of an Argentine national ID card. They probably weren't making a point about lots of tourists buying Boca shirts.

It's been a controversial few days here, then. Debate might continue about how high the standard of the Argentine league really is, and it would certainly be nice if, just once, the country could unite for a happy story as Paraguay did with Cabanas' comeback. Although it has to be said, all this madness has been pretty entertaining. Bring on the next round of matches!

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