BUENOS AIRES - Argentina's River Plate,
one of the world's biggest clubs, suffered the humiliation of
relegation for the first time in their 110-year history on
Sunday amid violent scenes and the closure of their Monumental
Rioting "Barra brava" hooligans caused mayhem inside and
outside the giant stadium after a 1-1 draw with Belgrano in the
second leg of a relegation-play-off condemned the 33-time
Argentine champions to Nacional B division for next season.
The violence from the fans throwing metal bars and stones
left 25 people, including six police officers, injured, with one
badly hurt after being hit by a car.
A major avenue nearby looked like a war zone with bonfires
blazing, shops windows smashed and stores looted.
A city prosecutor ordered the temporary closure of the
stadium - exactly four weeks before it is due to stage the
final of the Copa America - for an investigation into policing
and possible illegal sale of extra tickets.
"We will be looking for proof that more fans got in than is
authorised," prosecutor Gustavo Galante told America television,
adding the limit allowed by the government for the Monumental is
just over 40,000. Observers estimated the crowd at some 60,000.
Galante said his office had asked for the match to be played
behind closed doors after an invasion of the pitch by River fans
in Cordoba that interrupted the first leg for 20 minutes.
Players of both sides had to leave the Monumental pitch
under the protection of stewards while police used high power
hoses and tear gas to try to disperse the rioting fans.
Belgrano were later able to celebrate promotion with the few
hundred visiting fans, who, for their safety, were kept in their
sector of the stands nearly three hours after the final whistle.
Trailing 2-0 after the first leg, River were hoping for a
handsome victory to save them from relegation on the 15th
anniversary of their second Libertadores Cup title.
They went ahead in the sixth minute when striker Mariano
Pavone controlled on the edge of the box, swivelled and shot low
into the corner past diving keeper Juan Carlos Olave.
Midfielder Guillermo Farre stunned the crowd when he
equalised just past the hour, however, blasting the loose ball
past a stranded goalkeeper Juan Pablo Carrizo after a blunder in
the River defence.
Olave then sealed River's fate, and his team's 3-1 aggregate
victory, with a penalty save from Pavone after a push on fellow
striker Leandro Caruso.
Referee Sergio Pezzotta was the butt of criticism from River
fans for turning down appeals for a penalty in the first half
for what looked like a blatant foul on Caruso.
Former defender Jorge Higuain told Radio Continental that
River made a huge mistake 10 years ago in sacking a key figure
in their successful youth scheme, Brazilian Delem who played as
a forward for the club in the 1960s.
"It went downhill after they got rid of Delem," said
Higuain, father of Real Madrid and Argentina striker Gonzalo
Higuain, who was the last top quality player to emerge from
River's junior ranks in 2004.
River, noted for the quality of their football and the
players they produced - like former European Footballers of the
Year Alfredo Di Stefano and Omar Sivori - are paying for a poor
2008/09 campaign, which contributed to their low three-season
points average by which relegation is measured.
Their relegation, which comes at the end of a run of nine
matches without a win, leaves them facing huge financial losses
when they already have massive debts.
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