15.05.2015 22:51 h

Boca Juniors facing punishment for 'toxic liquid' attack

Argentine football club Boca Juniors faced the possibility of an instant exit from the Libertadores Cup Friday after their fans attacked players from arch-rivals River Plate with a pepper-spray-like substance.

The South American Football Confederation (CONMEBOL) is deliberating whether to award River Plate a victory or have the clubs play the second half of a match that ended in pandemonium at 0-0 with 45 minutes left to play Thursday.

CONMEBOL spokesman Nestor Benitez said it was "impossible to ignore the enormous gravity" of the incident, as the confederation gave Boca until 2:00 pm Saturday (1700 GMT) in Asuncion to "present whatever arguments it deems appropriate."

Boca, which has condemned the attack and apologized to River Plate, was preparing for the worst.

"Whatever decision the disciplinary committee takes will be complicated. It has to be fair and balanced. We don't want to be hostages to violent fans, nor can this go unpunished," club president Daniel Angelici told a press conference.

"This is an embarrassment for football," said manager Rodolfo Arruabarrena. "We will respect whatever CONMEBOL decides."

If punished with a loss, Boca will exit the top club tournament in Latin America.

They had already lost the first-leg match to River Plate 1-0, and were fighting to keep their quarter-finals hopes alive before a capacity home crowd of 60,000.

River Plate players were returning for the second half when a fan or fans apparently released a chemical irritant into the inflatable tunnel leading from the dressing rooms to the pitch.

The attack left several players rubbing their eyes in agony as teammates desperately threw water in their faces to try to relieve the pain.

Doctors said four players suffered first-degree burns.

Media reports initially said the substance was pepper spray, but Boca chief Angelici said that was incorrect.

"It wasn't pepper spray, it was a toxic liquid," he said.

Television images showed a Boca fan with his face covered, apparently introducing something into the inflatable tunnel from the seating area behind it.

Prosecutors said they were investigating on the basis of that footage. They were also analyzing the jerseys of the burned players to determine exactly what the substance was, and impounded the tunnel for analysis.

Boca's iconic stadium, the Bombonera, was closed Friday morning after the previous night's mayhem, which outraged commentators said marked a new low for Argentina's violence-plagued football matches.

"If there was any dignity left in Argentine football, it was torn to shreds last night at the Bombonera," said an editorial in newspaper Pagina/12. "Football and its leadership have hit bottom."

Boca-River Plate is one of the bitterest rivalries in football, and fan violence often mars the clubs' clashes.

River Plate, nicknamed the "Millionaires," is known as the club of the upper-middle class, while Boca is based in a tough immigrant neighborhood.

The Bombonera ("chocolate box") is known as one of the rowdiest venues in football, a place where fans spend the entire match on their feet, crammed against the railings and willing their team to victory with sheer noise.

Despite the 1,200 police posted at the stadium Thursday, the scene degenerated into chaos as match officials spent more than an hour deciding what to do after the chemical attack.

Fans hurled rocks, bottles and other missiles as others climbed over a six-meter (20-foot) fence to invade the pitch.

After referee Dario Herrera called off the game, some players ran off with their heads covered in wet towels to protect themselves from more possible attacks. Riot police guarded others with a tunnel of shields to guard them from projectiles.

The president of the Argentine Football Association, Luis Segura, said the unprecedented incident "is yet another stain on football and fuels the violence."

Many Argentines are exasperated with unrest perpetrated by the country's "barrabravas," or hooligans.

Three people have died in Argentina this year in football-related violence, which claimed 16 lives last year and 12 the previous year, according to activist group Let's Save Football.