Death, Corinthians and the total failure of South American football

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Last month, 20th of February to be exact. Corinthians flies to Bolivia to play a Copa Libertadores fixture against San José, in the city of Oruro. As usual, their biggest organized fans associations (something close to ultras in Europe), follow the team to Bolivia to support the club. Home crowd fill the stadium, with Corinthians supporters doing their part in filling theirs. That was the setup for the biggest failure to have ever happened on South American football, in every way.

On the field, the match was a fine draw, with Corinthians opening the score sheet early in the match and then San José pressuring, with the help of altitude, managed to get a draw and take a point from the current Libertadores champions. But all that, was left behind. What happened on the stands was the “feature” of the night. A really sad one.

Kevin Beltrán Espada left his parents home in Cochabamba that afternoon to watch his loved team play, 215 km away, in Oruro. The 14 year old teen, child in a humble family that has a total monthly income of around $400, would never imagine that that was a trip with no return.

During celebrations of Corinthians goal, supporters lit a flare that flew straight into Kevin’s eye, causing his brain to haemorrhage. What followed this event shows how unprepared South America is to release its full potential as the next big football market.

Corinthians fake grief and the arrest of supporters

On the way out of the stadium, players and staff from Corinthians looked very upset by the news they got moments earlier. With grieving faces, an emotional interview from both Edu Gaspar, football director and former Arsenal player, and Tite, the team coach, made it look like the club really did care about what just happened.

If they did at that moment, everything seemed to turn just a couple days after. Tite, whom I know the family in person, is a really fair guy and I honestly believe he was touched about it. I also think that if he said exactly what he thought during the trial process, he would’ve put Corinthians in an awful position. But he doesn’t want to lose his job, does he?

Mario Gobbi - Corinthians president
The man with no heart, Corinthians president Mario Gobbi: “Accidents happen”

To help making a point, the next day, Mario Gobbi, president of Corinthians gave an interview and when asked about the subject, he gave the very unfortunate answer: “Accidents happen.”

Meanwhile, Bolivian police arrested 12 members of the organized supporters from Corinthians, marking two as main executors and the other ten as accomplices of the crime. From this point, wheels started to get in motion to save Corinthians from a disastrous punishment that could come from Conmebol.

Conmebol punishes and a minor confesses the crime

A couple days after the match, Conmebol, who stated it was going to give an exemplary punishment for the case, announces a pre-trial penalty to Corinthians by not allowing the club to have any supporters in any match for this edition of the Libertadores. That move, besides from taking the massive support they give when Corinthians plays home, would cost the club around $7,5 million in ticket sales.

At this point, Corinthians management is doing whatever possible to distance themselves from the their “ultras”, which they widely support financially. They are also working hard in the background with CBF, the Brazilian archaic federation, in order to lesser the penalty given by Conmebol.

On the 24th, a 17-year-old minor (in Brazil, majority is above 18 years old) is presented by Gaviões da Fiel, Corinthians’ biggest organized fans association as the person who was holding the flare that killed Kevin. On the same day, he shows up for an interview on the country’s most viewed show, Fantástico. The network that runs the show, Rede Globo, is the biggest interested in solving the case in favour of Corinthians, since the club is the one that represents the biggest revenues in football for them.

In the interview, the youngster tells how he can’t live with himself because of the guilt and how sorry he feels for what happened. Being a minor, in Brazil he would be held for 3 years by a youth institution and also because of his age, he wouldn’t be extradited to Bolivia for a trial. During the talk, he “forgot” to mention that he ran away from the place where the flare was launched, contradicting what can be seen on the images.

The masterplan of the ultras was that presenting a minor that confesses the crime would help the 12 supporters held in Bolivia waiting for a trial. The Bolivian police and government didn’t buy it and kept them arrested.

Bolivia wants the minor and Corinthians fans ignore the punishment

Angered by the happening and seeking justice, Bolivian police asks the minor to fly to Bolivia to be interrogated. “If he is guilty and can’t live with himself because of what he did, he must come here and talk to us, so we can decide if he is guilty or not” says the Chief of Police in Oruro.

This became a problem that the Brazilians didn’t expect. If found guilty, the teenager that in Brazil is a minor, under Bolivian law would be considered of legal age to go to trial, since majority in Bolivia is 16 years old, and could be sentenced to up to 30 years in jail. Things got much more complicated for Gaviões’ lawyer now, since he believed that presenting a minor that confesses the crime would solve it. Far from it.

Running alongside with the crime component, Conmebol kept the previous punitive measure after the first appeal by Corinthians, so for the match against Millionarios on Pacaembu, they would have to play with their gates closed with no supporter allowed in the stands.

Gaviões, showing how connected they are with Corinthians management, asked (under the club’s high management request) their fans not to be near the stadium during the fixture, not to disturb the process of appealing the case. The problem was that nine fans went to civil court and got the granted right to be inside the stadium.

Club’s management begged them not to go in, and five of them understood and did it, while four of them, ignoring the penalty given by Conmebol, entered the stadium anyway. That generated a wave of anger from inside Corinthians, since this could ruin their whole defense in the case. This was on the 27th.

CBF plays its part and Corinthians president shows once again his cold heart

With all the above unfolding, it is expected a major punishment to Corinthians, so the Brazilians start to play every card they have in the sleeves.

Nicolás Leóz, José Maria Marin and Sepp Blatter
Nicolás Leoz softens the sentence by request of José Maria Marin. Outdated presidents?

José Maria Marin, CBF’s president, flies to Paraguay to visit Nicolás Leoz, president of Conmebol, with an idea that might change the heart of the Paraguayan. Marin proposes a friendly match between Brazil and Bolivia, in Bolivia. CBF will charge no fee to play and they suggest that all proceedings go to Kevin’s family.

The Paraguayan, a man used to politics in the game, loves the idea. “A game for Kevin” they idealize. Marin leaves the country and assures Corinthians management that the  disciplinary action won’t be as near as severe as they first thought, but there will still be a punishment.

A few days after, the family of Kevin reveals that Corinthians didn’t even offered condolences for the death and when enquired about it, Mario Gobbi says that “everything happened so recently” meaning that there was not enough time for that yet. Well done Mr. Gobbi.

Corinthians defense for the trial and the bribed minor that confessed

On the 5th of March, Corinthians defense thesis is revealed. The club will deny any involvement with the “organizadas”, blame San José for the weak enforcement and say they have no liability on what happened, and therefore, shouldn’t be penalized.

Oddly enough, the board of the club is highly optimistic about it and believe all that the club will get is their supporters not being allowed in away matches. On the coming day, Corinthians plays Tijuana in México, and once again, supporters ignore Conmebol and display a banner of one of the organized fans association, the “Camisa 12”.

Not happy by all this mess, on the 7th it is published by “Folha de São Paulo”, one of the biggest newspapers in Brazil, that the minor that confessed the crime, got a free scholarship for a private university, to study any course he wants. What impresses the most is that the scholarship was given through “Gaviões da Fiel”, the same association which presented him as responsible for launching the flare that killed Kevin.

Trial result adds another hit for Conmebol’s Hall of Shame

The trial on the match incident is held on the 7th and its sentence, could be considered a joke, but can’t,  it is too sad for that. Corinthians is penalized with a fine of $200,000 and with their supporters not being able to attend away matches for one year and a half. Strange coincidence with what the board was thinking a few days before, no?

Aside from that, Conmebol gave a $10,000 fine to San José (!) for not taking care of security in a home match and also threw in a warning to the Bolivian club because of that. Just unbelievable ending to the story.

My thoughts: Am I the only one angry about this?

I was never planning on writing about this, because I was sure the correct actions would be taken in the case. But the unfairness of the whole thing and the cause of it all, the death of a young boy that travelled on a budget just to watch his club play a game, like I did many times, drove me to this long text.

With all pieces clearly together, how is it possible that South American football will ever be taken seriously when such ridiculous ancient institutions govern it? Take the facts for one moment.

We have the “ultras”, that are closely connected to clubs (in the biggest ones) and organized crime in Brazil killing a person in Bolivia. Then a club, that shows no affection by the happening and tries by all means to revert the punishment and continue with the money making.  A minor that confesses the crime, but is not feeling bad enough to go to Bolivia and face authorities. Ah, and that got clearly bribed by the “organizada” he is part of. Supporters that disregard the decision of Conmebol and show at the stands anyway, defying any authority the South American institution could have. And the family of Kevin, that never asked for anything but justice to the case.

While all 12 supporters of Corinthians are still arrested and will probably be considered guilty when go on trial, Conmebol shows how weak the organization is and reminds us that football in South America is still in the dark age. Despite the new rules that clearly states that the clubs are responsible for their supporters, they gave a “walk in the park” to Corinthians and distance themselves from any seriousness that is required by such an important institution.

All this made me very angry and shocked. It looks like a kid died in vain and that we are just waiting for another tragedy to happen. Obviously this post won’t change anything in the big scheme of things, but I felt compelled to write because, like sings Jorge Drexler, “No hay muerto que no me duela”.

It could have been me. Could have been you. Your son. Your brother. Your best friend. And for many, he was one of that.

This one is for Kevin Douglas Beltrán Espada, may he rest in peace.