Brazil-Argentina marred by crowd trouble, police violence as players try to intervene

Police try to stop a fight between Brazilian and Argentinian fans that broke out prior to a qualifying soccer match for the FIFA World Cup 2026 between Brazil and Argentina at Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2023. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)

Tuesday's World Cup qualifier between Brazil and Argentina was delayed and marred by brawling fans and violent police at the Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro.

The ugly scenes ignited just minutes before a much-anticipated match, perhaps Lionel Messi's last in Brazil, was scheduled to begin. Police wielding batons appeared to attack a section of Argentina fans behind one goal. Their aggression was reportedly triggered by fights between those fans and Brazilian counterparts, during and after pregame national anthems had been sung and booed.

Multiple fans were injured. At least one left the stadium on a stretcher. Several were pictured bleeding from their heads. Dislodged seats were weaponized. Some fans attempted to escape the madness, and avoid a crush, by hopping down onto the field. Others wore terror on their faces.

The violence caught the attention of concerned Argentine players, who watched on from near midfield. They soon walked over toward the scene, and hopped over advertising boards, seemingly in an effort to restore calm. Brazilian captain Marquinhos joined them.

The fighting, though, continued. As it raged, Argentina goalkeeper Emi Martinez pushed his way toward the facing of the stands, and attempted to scale the wall and physically intervene. He grabbed at a policeman, but was repelled by officers, and then restrained by teammates.

Having seen the violence up close, Argentina players then exited the field. Messi appeared to tell them: “We're leaving. We can’t play in these circumstances.”

And he later told reporters: "We saw how [the police] were hitting people." It was similar, he said, to the policing that met Boca Juniors fans when they traveled to Rio for the Copa Libertadores final earlier this month. "Again," Messi said, they were "repressing the people."

So he and his teammates stayed in the locker room for roughly 22 minutes, while Brazil's entire team remained on the pitch — and as the madness continued. Police chased fans up stairs and out of the section. At least one Argentine official entered the stands to help resolve the situation.

Argentine players returned only when relative calm had been restored. After a brief warmup — and a brief argument between Messi and Brazilian forward Rodrygo — the match finally kicked off, 27 minutes after originally scheduled.

The trouble seemed to stem from inexplicably poor crowd control. The Argentine fans were placed in a section surrounded by Brazilians on both sides and from behind. There were no barriers between the visitors and locals. Away fans are typically separated from home fans, at least by a sturdy line of security. Here, at an always-heated rivalry, there seemed to be nothing protecting them from one another.

Most of the affected Argentine fans returned to their seats at some point before or during the first half. They were closely watched and encircled by dozens of security and police officers.

In the 63rd minute, they celebrated wildly when Nicolas Otamendi rose above a Brazilian opponent to head home the game's only goal.

As second-half stoppage-time minutes waned, the Argentina fans belted songs at the top of their lungs, pulsed their arms, twirled their shirts, and oléd passes. At the final whistle, players pumped their fists, then trotted over to those fans, the same ones caught up in chaos two hours earlier. They stepped through a line of riot police, and sang along.

The 1-0 win took Argentina back to the top of South America's World Cup qualifying standings, ahead of Uruguay. Brazil is struggling, with just seven points in six games — and more losses (three) than it suffered over the entirety of the 2018 and 2022 qualifying cycles combined (one).