RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Lionel Messi led his Argentina lineup off the field because of a brawl between rival fans in Brazil, delaying the start of their South American World Cup qualifier by 27 minutes Tuesday at the Maracana Stadium.
Messi’s squad returned from the locker room after it was deemed to be safe and went on to win a tense match 1-0, staying on the pitch to celebrate with their fans long after the final whistle.
“There was family of the players (there). We were more worried about that than playing the match,” Messi said after the match. “We did that (going to the locker room) because that was the way to make it all calm. From below, we couldn’t do much, we saw how they (police) hit people.”
Players of both teams had earlier asked fans for calm, with Argentina goalkeeper Dibu Martinez racing to one of the rails in front of the visiting fans and urging police to stop the violence.
Police used batons to break up the fights in the crowd, which started minutes after the national anthems echoed around the stadium.
Parts of seating and other objects were thrown from both sides and hit some spectators behind one of the goals, and at least one fan left the stadium bleeding from his head.
Argentina returned after 22 minutes in the locker rooms, and warmed up for several minutes before the game was finally started.
Dozens of police surrounded Argentina fans as they cheered during the match, and even more security faced toward them on the pitch. Police gathered around the section that can hold about 3,000 fans.
Col. Vagner Ferreira, the highest-ranking police officer in the stadium, blamed organizers for the lack of a barrier between home and visiting fans. He defended the actions of police.
“Every action demands a reaction. There is a history of confrontation here. At first we spoke to them. Then, we had to use our batons. There was no lethal force involved, no rubber bullets, no tear gas. This was a very technical approach,” Ferreira told TV channel SporTV.
All 69,000 tickets for the match in Rio de Janeiro were sold. Brazil fans, who jeered and applauded Messi before the brawl began, chanted against him when he returned to the pitch.
Brazil players remained on the pitch and warmed up while waiting for the Argentina team to return.
Argentina leads South American World Cup qualifying with 15 points from six games. Brazil is in sixth position. Both teams had lost their previous games in the 10-team round-robin competition.
The rivalry between Brazil and Argentina started at the club level and grew after the Argentinians won their first World Cup title in 1978. The Brazilians beat Argentina 3-1 in the second phase of the 1982 World Cup, and the Argentines responded with a 1-0 victory eight years later in the round of 16.
The reginal rivals have since played fierce matches in World Cup qualifying and in Copa America, but not in World Cups.
They were expected to face off in the semifinals last year in Qatar, but Brazil was knocked out by Croatia in the quarterfinals before Argentina went on to win the title for a third time.
The heated debate over who is the best footballer in history, with most Brazilians going for Pelé and Argentinians split between Messi and Diego Maradona, has also intensified the rivalry.
On Nov. 4, Brazil’s Fluminense won the Copa Libertadores final at the Maracana Stadium after a week of street fights between some of its supporters and those of Argentina’s Boca Juniors.
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