There is no question that the rivalry between Boca Juniors and River Plate is one of the fiercest in the world. However, the latest edition of this historic rivalry was marred by the behavior of Boca Juniors fans Thursday night. Coming out of the tunnel following halftime of the second leg of their Round of 16 tie in the Copa Libertadores at La Bombonera in Buenos Aires, River Plate players were attacked with pepper spray, presumably by a group of Boca fans. The match was suspended for about an hour, before CONMEBOL called off the match for the night. No further decision on the fate of the tie has been announced yet.
While the details of the incident are still foggy, the final decision from CONMEBOL will go a long way towards establishing a precedent for fan behavior in South America. Should teams be punished for the behavior of their fans? Is it fair for Boca to be forced to forfeit the tie based on the actions of a few fans? Should Boca Juniors as a club be responsible for the behavior of every Boca fan inside the stadium? These are the difficult questions that CONMEBOL officials will have to ask when determining punishment for this incident.
In cases where it is a large group of fans that are the offenders, it is certainly justifiable for punishment to be heavy and severe. However, in a case where it was just the action of a few, or even one, there is more of a grey area. If, as some reports state, it was someone on the inside that opened the tunnel to allow the pepper spray to be sprayed in, and that someone was in an official capacity with the club, the punishment should absolutely be expulsion from the competition.
Whatever decision CONMEBOL makes will establish a precedent for cases of fan misbehavior in South America. While precedents (especially those in South American football) can be easily broken, CONMEBOL must be careful with the decision they make in the wake of this incident. CONMEBOL must simultaneously make it clear that there is absolutely no room for this type of behavior in football, while also ensuring that the punishment handed out to Boca Juniors is a fair one. Undoubtedly, it will be a tough decision, but it must be made quickly, there is no time for a long drawn out investigation that interrupts the Copa Libertadores, and keeps both Boca and River in limbo.
Regardless of the decision CONMEBOL eventually makes, this incident only brings further into the light the issues with fan behavior that can, at times, plague South American football. It is an issue that must be taken care of, or leagues in South America run the risk of falling even further behind their European counterparts.