ERIC WEIL in BUENOS AIRES: The deliberate refusal of Argentina’s authorities to deal with the game’s endemic hooligan problem ws laid bare last night when the Copa Libertadores clasico Cup between Boca Juniors and River Plate was abandoned at half-time.

River players were attacked with pepper spray inside the ‘protective’ inflatable tunnel before they emerged for the start of the second half in the last-16 round tie between the old rivals.

The incident added to the sense of a game already out of control after the death of a fourth division player two weeks after he crashed into a pitch perimeter wall. This weekend’s league matches have been suspended as a mark of respect.

Television pictures from Buenos Aires and screened across Latin America showed Leonardo Ponzio and Leonel Vangioni rubbing their eyes and other players pouring water over their faces to wash away the irritant. It was an hour before CONMEBOL, the South American Football confederation, confirmed the match had been abandoned.

Ponzio, Vangioni, Matias Kranevitter and Ramires Funes Mori were all treated in hospital later for what local radio reports described as “burns”.

Safety and security concerns meant the players were unable to leave the stadium, all under police guard, until the early hours of the morning.

Marcelo Gallardo, coach of River who won the first leg 1-0, described the attack as  “deplorable” and “shameful”. Boca president Daniel Angelici said he had apologised to River directors and added: “I can’t believe it. This is all deplorable, it’s a huge embarrassment.”

Boca were among the favourites to win the tournament for the seventh time after winning all six of their group games however their Bombonera [Chocolate Box] box has collected more stadia suspensions – four – than any other in the history of the South American club cup.

The incident is just the latest in a long series of violent events in South American football. In 2013, a Bolivian fan was killed by a flare fired by Corinthians fans during a Libertadores tie.