Before kick-off there was a minute of silence. After it, the silence hung in the air, barely punctured by the whistle of referee Nestor Pitana, which was met not with the expectant roar of a crowd ready for action but with scattered shouts of encouragement from players and coaching staff. Corinthians kicked off the first home match of their Copa Libertadores defence in front of a near empty stadium.
It was a strange sight. Of all Brazilian clubs, Corinthians are perhaps the one most defined by the strength of their supporter base. The club had the highest average attendance in the Brazilian top flight last season and 22,000 of their supporters travelled to Tokyo to watch their victory over Chelsea in the Club World Cup in December. But it was a militant core of those supporters who were the cause of Wednesday’s lockout.
Last week in Oruro, Bolivia, a member of the Corinthians torcida Gavioes da Fiel fired a flare into the home support of San Jose, striking and killing 14-year-old Kevin Beltran. Flares are a common sight in South American stadiums, but are usually hand held. A video posted on the internet by a Bolivian radio station showed that this particular flare had been fired at great velocity from a launching device aimed into the heart of the adjacent home support.
Corinthians were immediately repentant. Coach Tite refused to discuss football in the post-match press conference, while unbidden tears came to the eyes of sporting director Edu Gaspar as he expressed deep regret on behalf of the club. Left-back Fabio Santos even suggested that he would be in favour of the club’s exclusion from the competition if it helped reduce the chances of a repeat incident.
Oruro police detained 12 Gavioes da Fiel members for questioning, although later a 17-year-old member of the torcida handed himself in to the Sao Paulo police, claiming responsibility. The requisite legal punishments will be handed out in due course, but there can also be hope that Beltran’s death will act as a catalyst to improve safety standards across the continent. In Bolivia, at least, the incident seems to have added fresh impetus to a stalled campaign.
CONMEBOL, South American football’s governing body, acted with surprising efficiency to impose a ban on supporters attending the remainder of Corinthians’ group stage matches. Despite their earlier remorse, the club immediately launched an appeal, indicating that it would be unfair to punish the majority of supporters for the actions of a few. It was an ill-judged move, and one that garnered few friends. CONMEBOL rightfully upheld the ban.
Corinthians therefore welcomed Millonarios to an eerily quiet Pacaembu on Wednesday, looking for a victory to launch their trophy defence into gear following their 1-1 draw in Bolivia the previous week. They started on the front foot and went ahead 10 minutes in when Paolo Guerrero volleyed home a loose ball inside the penalty area.
Guerrero, who scored Corinthians’ winner against Chelsea in the Club World Cup final, is one of three high-profile signings made by the club since last season’s Libertadores triumph. Alexandre Pato, signed for a cool €15M from AC Milan, doubled the home side’s advantage just after half-time, while the third new recruit, Renato Augusto, provided a consistently excellent supply from set-pieces.
With a two-goal advantage obtained, Corinthians saw out the rest of match in the calm, controlled manner that has become their trademark under Tite. They conceded just four goals on their way to the trophy last year and early signs would suggest this year’s iteration has the potential to be an even better side.
Last year, Corinthians often employed what can be best described as a 4-2-4-0 formation, with two central attacking midfielders and two wide men either side of them who made diagonal runs in behind opposition defences. This year, the more traditional strike partnership of Guerrero and Pato already looks a potent force, while there remain options on the bench to facilitate a reversion to the old approach.
With a strong defence and the well-attuned central midfield pairing of Paulinho and Ralf, Corinthians look well deserving of their tag as tournament favourites. They will, correctly, play the remainder of their group stage matches without support, but even with no one to cheer them on they remain fearsome opponents.
Goal of the Week
Renzo Sheput (32) – Sporting Cristal (Peru) vs Tigre (Argentina)
Sheput was substituted at half time in Sporting Cristal’s defeat to Palmeiras in their opening match, but made amends on Thursday with a masterfully executed free kick, over the wall and into the corner of the net, to send them on their way to a 2-0 victory over Tigre.
Player of the Week
Ronaldinho (32) – Atletico Mineiro (Brazil)
Ronaldinho performed superbly in Atletico Mineiro’s 5-2 win away to Arsenal de Sarandi on Tuesday. He provided the assist for Bernard’s opener with a lovely clipped pass over the defence and played a key role in the fourth and fifth goals of the match, both also scored by Bernard.
Arsenal defender Diego Braghieri grew so frustrated that he launched into a high, two-footed challenge on the former World Player of the Year in the closing minutes, conceding a penalty from which Ronaldinho struck the crossbar. Despite that miss he still had every reason to be happy after an excellent night’s work.
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