A new low? Brazil-Argentina farce brings more shame on South American football
It was a scene so surreal that, if you had dared to put it down in a work of fiction, it would have been rejected out of hand by any editor worth their salt as being too preposterous.
CONMEBOL's showpiece World Cup qualifier between Brazil and Argentina descended into farce just five minutes after kick-off in Sao Paulo when a gaggle of police and health officers rushed onto the Arena Corinthians pitch in a desperate, ham-fisted attempt to detain three of the visitors' starting line-up.
Unsurprisingly, this impromptu pitch invasion on the part of the authorities was rebuffed by the dumb-struck Albiceleste, leading to chaos on the field.
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“We're off,” Lionel Messi vowed after leading his team back down the tunnel to the relative safety of the dressing room, while in the bowels of the stadium the team coach could be seen waiting with its engine running should a rapid escape be necessary.
Let us not mince words. This was an embarrassment for every party concerned, a disaster of epic proportions and a black mark against one of football's proudest football regions. And there was no reason why it should have occurred.
It is useless to find just one culprit for these shameful scenes. All of the parties involved must shoulder their share of the blame for bringing this World Cup qualifier into disrepute.
Argentina quartet Emiliano Martinez, Emiliano Buendia, Cristian Romero and Giovani Lo Celso are accused of committing a grave offence upon entering Brazil, as they allegedly lied on an official document and omitted that they had been in the United Kingdom in an attempt to circumvent local quarantine laws. Officials for the Albiceleste have denied those claims.
However, if proven accurate, the alleged actions from Argentina should not be relativised: the quartet, and whoever in the Argentina set-up advised them to take this measure, would have acted with the utmost irresponsibility and should be punished in the appropriate manner by Brazilian authorities if found guilty.
But the handling of this matter by those in charge also leaves a lot to be desired.
Not until just two hours before kick-off did Anvisa, the national health agency, release a statement confirming the charges against the four, and they were nevertheless permitted to travel to Arena Corinthians along with the rest of the Argentina team in spite of a heavy police presence at their Sao Paulo hotel.
Even after Anvisa's intervention, everyone involved on the football side of matters – Brazil and Argentina's respective football associations, and CONMEBOL – reached an accord to allow the 'fugitives' to take the field all the same. The game began as planned, without incident through the national anthems and kick-off, before all hell broke loose.
The reaction of those in charge does appear to have cleared new depths of improvisation and incompetence. “We have been here for three days, nobody told us anything,” Messi remonstrated on the pitch, showing up the ridiculous decision to barge into the game with the ball already rolling.
Just take the words of Anvisa chief Antonio Barra Torres, who told Globo : “We called the Federal Police, who went to the hotel and we found out that they had already left for the stadium. The rest is what you're watching live."
The police, we have established, were there before and during Argentina's departure, suggesting at the very least a horrendous breakdown in communications which contributed to this shambolic afternoon.
It is frankly not good enough. A match involving stars of the calibre of Messi, Neymar and some of the world's most celebrated footballers should not be tainted with a brawl that would bring shame to the lowliest Sunday League slogger.
Governments, national teams and their governing bodies should be working together, particularly during a global health emergency, to guarantee such events be carried out safely, not talking and acting over one another with such apparent contempt and disrespect.
Certainly, at the very least, it should not be too hard to agree that the sight of football players staring down armed plain-clothes policemen in the middle of a game is something that should be unacceptable in any plausible scenario.
What comes next, whether the game will ultimately go ahead, if Brazil or Argentina will be awarded a walkover victory and if anyone at all will face sanctions or a rebuke, remains to be seen.
For now, this is one of South America's darkest sporting days in recent memory, and a damning indictment of all of the parties which contributed to make this supposed festival of football such an unmitigated disaster.