What began as an administrative error for South America’s football bosses lead to a full-blown riot as Santos fans raged against the CONMEBOL machine
For an organisation so desperate to rebrand the Copa Libertadores as something close to its European counterpart, the Champions League, CONMEBOL couldn’t have done a worse job this week as days of confusion culminated in violence in the stands and the last 16 clash between Santos and Independiente being abandoned minutes before full-time.
A meeting in the Copa Libertadores knockout stage of two of the continent’s great clubs should have been a terrific advertisement for CONMEBOL but it was instead an example of everything wrong with South American football.
Last week’s goalless draw in Avellaneda left the tie delicately poised but the discovery that Santos’ recently acquired midfielder Carlos Sanchez still had a suspension hanging over him from his days at River Plate in 2015 meant the Uruguayan was unknowingly ineligible.
Having given Independiente a 3-0 victory for the inclusion of suspended Carlos Sánchez in the Santos team, CONMEBOL have decided that is punishment enough, and that Sánchez will be allowed to play in tonight's Libertadores game. pic.twitter.com/XdNz3HxLSt
— Daniel Edwards 💚 (@DanEdwardsGoal) August 28, 2018
Santos had hoped that this would be excused given CONMEBOL’s online database hadn’t listed this fact and River Plate, who also fielded the ineligible Bruno Zuculini throughout the tournament to date, had been let off the hook.
However, with none of River’s opponents reporting this unknown piece of information within the 24 hours deadline and Los Millonarios writing to CONMEBOL for confirmation of the suspensions previously it was deemed that in this particular case the Argentinian club were not to blame.
Having recently punished Chilean club Deportes Temuco for the same offense, where the only excuse was again the CONMEBOL database, Santos were unfortunately dealt the same treatment.
The delay in announcing this meant that only hours before the second leg kicked off in Sao Paulo, Santos’ valuable goalless draw against Independiente had become a 3-0 defeat.
The belief may still have been with the players when they took the field but it never really looked likely with Santos rarely working goalkeeper Martin Campana. Instead it was El Rojo on the counter with the best chances and with Maxi Meza missing a penalty and Pablo Hernandez hitting the underside of the crossbar the contest should have been over sooner.
Santos supporters ensured that the full 90 minutes weren’t needed regardless as with less than 10 minutes to go, flares rained down, the referee halted play and as the game was abandoned, police clashed with fans in the stands.
Those images were the ones beamed around the world. The institutional chaos that created the toxic atmosphere in the Pacaembu that led to that point hardly helping South American football shed its unwanted image.
It was painfully predictable and while Santos’ frustrated players and supporters took their anger out on CONMEBOL the scenes that ended the game are not acceptable.
Santos manager Cuca, involved in some altercations with police as they dragged off supporters who had invaded the pitch, was more measured in his response: “Independiente were better and deserved to advance. Santos’ leadership needs to improve a lot internally as what happened isn’t something small. It was a grave error.”
No one came out what should have been a marquee clash in any credit. CONMEBOL’s leadership and organisation (or complete lack of) has been shambolic, the two sides produced little quality when on the pitch and violent scenes portrayed a view of South American supporters that needs to be rid of.
CONMEBOL must first resolve the relatively simple tasks of administering suspensions in their tournaments before serious change can be seen throughout the continent.