MARTIN MAZUR / AIPS —- Argentina’s 1-0 victory at Maracaná marked the first time that Brazil lost a World Cup qualifier at home. Sadly, it was not the first time, nor it will be the last, that Argentinian fans have been targeted and become the subject of police brutality while visiting Brazil.

The battle of Maracaná should have only taken place on the pitch, in a fierce game that had 42 fouls, players squaring-up and so much tension. Yet the real battle of Maracaná was for Argentinian fans that were battered by military police, using their batons without remorse and bragging about it.

The spark flared during the national anthems (Why do we still have national anthems in football?) and quickly escalated from a two-people argument over a flag into a major action by the police who advanced using their batons not to cordon the zone but to attack directly and without justification the fans that retreated appealing for mercy.

The lack of organisation was evident: Argentinian and Brazilian fans were not previously or properly split, so the smallest problem could have created mayhem, as was the case.

Even with many Brazilian fans trying to intervene and to calm things down, police officers were blinded by rage and kept hitting heads as if they were watermelons. A mother with her kid jumped onto the pitch. Others, not only children but adults, were crying in fear.

Players warming up on the pitch noticed the situation and, with captain Leo Messi leading the pack, they approached the scene.

It was a dangerous, risky but brave move, remembering that that the 2012 Copa Sudamericana final was abandoned by Tigre after their players were threatened with guns by private security.

When Argentina’s goalkeeper Emi Martinez jumped to try to stop one police officer from using his baton, the Copa Libertadores atmosphere had definitely taken over. Pitch battles have erupted for far less, with players assaulted and arrested.

Covid bust-up

The last time Argentina visited Brazil, the game in Sao Paulo had been abandoned after armed men and government employees interrupted the game, stating that players coming from England had dodged Covid quarantine rules.

Argentina’s team barricaded themselves in their bus overnight to prevent players from being arrested, and after diplomatic negotiations, were allowed to leave.

FIFA delayed a decision – no points deduction for either of the teams- until it was clear that both had qualified for the World Cup in Qatar. That night, Argentina proved that they acted as a team.

Countless victims

Police brutality has been a constant of the past decade in club football, regardless of the political sign that ruled Brazil.

It happened under Lula da Silva and also under Jair Bolsonaro. It happened in Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Belo Horizonte and Porto Alegre. In August, the fans of Argentinos Juniors were attacked by the police in similar scenes which were merely noted as an anecdote of the game.

Libertadores example

In the Copa Libertadores final, this month, the same happened outside the stadium to Boca Juniors fans holding tickets and carrying children on their shoulders.

One of the fans on Tuesday was taken on a stretcher, unconscious, his head awash in a pool of blood. He woke up handcuffed and, while he was being tended, he saw the police taking selfies of the X-rays of the fans (one suffered a broken arm) . He said: “They were using us as war trophies.”

South American confederation CONMEBOL, as usual, has made no comment.

Once again, the world champions displayed the intense bond which exceeds tactics and match performance. Even if their intervention proved to be worthless, it gave visibility to the scenes that quickly went viral, thanks to the work of the photographers and especially the TV journalists that were filming with their phones.

When matters continued to escalate, Messi made the gesture. “We’re out!” So the team returned to the dressing rooms. Was it a match abandonment? No, the captain would later explain.

“Many players had family members and friends there, and when we understood that we couldn’t do anything for them, we left to calm things down,” he said in the flash interview after the game.

Messi anger

On his Instagram he posted: “Great victory at Maracaná, even it will be forever tarnished by the repression of the Argentinians, once again, in Brazil. This can no longer be tolerated, it’s madness and has to end now.” The posted attracted more than 9m likes in the first 12 hours.

Messi had to be replaced because of a muscle injury that, he explained, probably happened because of the delayed kick-off. It was the second time in one week in which he was seen grabbing an opponent by the neck. He is no longer the shy boy who endured high kicks and scything tackles and harsh words without reaction.

“Why are we cowards, if we are the world champions?” he said to Rodrygo who was quickly led away by Brazil captain Marquinhos, a former team-mate of Messi at Paris Saint-Germain.

Tension continued in the press conference, with an unexpected shock from the Argentinian side, as manager Lionel Scaloni hinted that he might resign or, at least, he had plenty of things to reflect.

Before storming out he said: “We’ve set the bar too high, and Argentina need a manager that is fully focused. I just wanted to share this. Thanks.”

Election shadow

Last week, in a heated political campaign before the national elections, he had already answered in a very no-nonsense way a question about the role of the private sector in football, as one of the candidates, Javier Milei, had mentioned.

The AFA president has close ties with the defeated candidate, Sergio Massa, and a mere suggestion to publicly support him could have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. But unpaid World Cup winning bonuses for him and his staff, 11 months after Argentina’s crowing in Qatar, were probably the core of his anger. The atmosphere at Maracaná clearly did not contribute to a peaceful state of mind.

The football crisis of Brazil can and will be solved.

This is the first time they have lost three qualifiers in a row, gone four games without winning, suffered their first home defeat in the qualifiers, having a part-time manager (who is also the manager of Fluminense, new Libertadores champions) while they wait for Carlo Ancelotti and their injured stars.

Now, international football stops in South America and will only resume after the Copa America next year, in the United States.

Nine and half months from now, the battle of Maracaná will probably be forgotten. Until the next time, that is.

Police brutality (or police lack of intervention during ambushes of away fans) can only be stopped with visibility, from players and journalists alike. The action of Messi and his team-mates should be remembered as a victory in that quest for a peaceful environment and family-oriented football.

Not to forget: Argentina won with a second-half goal from Nicolas Otamendi . . .