River Plate fans reacted to the first relegation in their club’s 110-year history with a violent rampage that put 25 police officers in hospital.
It’s almost as unthinkable as Barcelona playing in the Blue Square Premier but the most successful club in Argentina has slipped out of the top flight.
With River’s fate sealed fans rushed onto the pitch in an effort to make good on their pre-game “kill or be killed” threat. As players and coaching staff ran for cover pitched battles between police and supporters sprang up in and around El Monumental stadium.
Police deployed water canons in an attempt to cool things off but with 60,000 disgruntled supporters spilling onto the streets they found themselves overmatched.
Fans demonstrated their displeasure by throwing punches, kicks, iron bars, dustbins, bicycles and anything else close by at the police. Other sections of supporters took out their anger on local businesses and residents as they looted shops and torched cars.
When order was eventually restored it was more by coincidence than design that there had been no fatalities. One police officer was airlifted from the scene with a head wound to join his colleagues in hospital while 40 fans suffered injuries and 50 arrests were made.
Relegation was never supposed to be on the menu for the club that delights in calling itself Los Millonarios. For a kick-off there are a string of safeguards in place designed specifically to protect the big boys of Buenos Aires.
An average points tally from league campaigns over the previous three years determines the drop zone in Argentina. A club like River with 33 titles in the bank can suffer the odd bad season and still retain their place at the top table.
If the worse comes to the worse and a club of River’s stature ends up in a relegation double header with a team from Primera B, the playing field is still far from level. The team from the top-flight play the decisive second leg at home and for the tie to end in favour of the second tier outfit they must win outright on aggregate. No extra-time, no away goals, no fair!
It was essential therefore that River’s opponents Belgrano did some damage in the first leg and they duly delivered a 2-0 win in Cordoba. River fans also had no small part to play in this fixture as they staged a pitch invasion that held up the second half for 20 minutes.
In the return fixture River were back in it almost immediately as Mariano Pavone halved the deficit within the first five minutes. Shortly after the goal the hosts had a stonewall penalty turned down as referee Sergio Pezzotta seemed to react to bribery claims by favouring the minnows.
As the game wore on River were forced to commit more and more men forward and they were punished on the hour mark when Guillermo Farré tapped in following a swift Belgrano counter-attack.
When River did finally catch a break from Pezzotta they failed to capitalise as Juan Carlos Olave held Pavone’s tame spot-kick.
The writing was on the wall with a minute of normal time remaining when River fans entered the playing surface and gave Pezzotta no option but to blow up.
Few will find River’s calamity more amusing than fans of Boca Juniors, but they themselves would do well to remember that they start next season deep in the relegation mire.