How Uruguay vs Colombia descened into chaos – and the questions raised by the ugly scenes

What should have been a showpiece game in the semi-final of the Copa America in Charlotte on Wednesday night descended into something more akin to a bar-room brawl as several Uruguay players, including Darwin Nunez and the captain Jose Maria Gimenez, clashed with Colombia supporters in the stands after the final whistle.

It was an ugly, chaotic and extraordinary scene that overshadowed a compelling match, raising serious questions about the security arrangements in place at the Bank of America Stadium as well as CONMEBOL’s decision to stage a game of this magnitude at a venue that was being used for the first time in the tournament.

Another match is taking place at the same stadium on Saturday, when Uruguay return for a third-place play-off against Canada, and there will surely need to be an investigation between now and then to establish the full chain of events that led to the unsavoury scenes that were circulating on social media in the aftermath of Colombia’s 1-0 victory.

Nunez was visibly upset after becoming embroiled in an incident in which punches were traded and objects were thrown in one of the blocks in the lower tier where the families and friends of the Uruguay players were located close to Colombia fans.

Darwin Nunez went into the stand after the match (Nick Tre. Smith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

There was a mixture of anger and frustration in the voices of the Uruguay players afterwards.

“It’s a total disaster,” Gimenez, the Uruguay captain, said. “There wasn’t a single police officer. They showed up half an hour later. A disaster. And we were there, standing up for ourselves, for our loved ones.

“Hopefully, organisers take a little more precautions with our families, with the people and those around the stadiums. Because this happens every game. Our families are suffering because of some people who have a few drinks and don’t know how to drink, who act like children.”

The Uruguayan Football Association (AUF) has said it will analyse all the footage before deciding whether to make an official complaint. But it is clear the AUF believes it was an oversight to put the players’ friends and families in the same area as Colombia supporters without any sort of partition.

“I think there should’ve been some kind of barrier, especially because it was known practically from the beginning of the tournament that the Colombian fans were going to purchase 95 per cent of the tickets and that area (of the stadium) could get complicated,” Ignacio Alonso, the AUF president, said.

As for the actions of Nunez, Gimenez and others, Alonso maintained what they did was only to be expected in the circumstances. “The Uruguayan players reacted instinctively to what is natural: which is to defend and protect the children that were in that part of the stand, the women who were being assaulted, the wives, fathers, children and brothers who were there. It’s an instinctive response of a father,” he added.

The backdrop to all of this is that emotions had been running high at the stadium all night — Colombia played the entire second half with 10 men after Daniel Munoz was shown a red card just before the interval — but it was the final whistle, after seven minutes of stoppage time, that brought the first of two flashpoints.

Initially, there was a melee in the centre circle, where more than 40 players and staff congregated immediately after the game. Some Colombia and Uruguay players embraced one another while others — Uruguay’s Luis Suarez and Colombia’s Miguel Borja among them — became involved in an altercation. There was a lot of pushing and shoving elsewhere but, on the face of it, nothing more sinister than that.

Moments later, though, some of the Uruguay players started to sprint towards the touchline, in an area just to the right of their dugout. At first, it was unclear what was going on, other than that some children wearing Uruguay shirts were being carried out of the lower tier and onto the pitch.

The videos that emerged later provided a fuller picture and showed Nunez, along with Gimenez and the Barcelona defender Ronald Araujo, climbing up into the stand and angrily confronting Colombia supporters. As everything got more heated, Nunez appeared to be struck by one fan. The Liverpool striker also appeared to throw a punch back.

“’Some of the players had wives, small children, their parents, older relatives… They went to see how they were doing,” Suarez said. “Then those things started to happen, the images that you’ve seen. They (Nunez, Gimenez and others) were trying to protect their families. From what I saw, there were a lot of relatives and children affected. You’re left powerless in that situation.”

Contrary to what Gimenez thought, police officers were present at the scene, albeit they took some time — more than 60 seconds — to get the situation under control and needed the help of security personnel.

Prior to that, it had threatened to turn into a free-for-all as other Uruguay players and staff got involved, clambering over seats. Video footage appears to show Rodrigo Bentancur throwing an object of some sort into that area.

As for Nunez, he was clearly still irate and deeply upset by everything that had happened when he got down from the stand. The forward picked up a chair, ran towards an area where Colombia fans were goading him, and threw it into the wall below, prompting some of the Uruguay substitutes to drag him away.

Nunez looked extremely emotional at that point. He was consoled by one of the Uruguay backroom staff on the pitch and also by Suarez and Luis Diaz, the Colombia forward who plays alongside him for Liverpool.

As the dust started to settle and the fans spilt out of the stadium, there were Uruguay players still on the pitch holding their children. Matias Vina had a baby in his hands at one stage, Nicolas de la Cruz sat with his daughter on his knee on the floor, and Nunez was later pictured with a child on his shoulder.

The Uruguay players looked like they were in a state of shock as much as anything. “It was an ugly moment,” Sergio Rochet, the Uruguay goalkeeper, said. “It’s not nice to see these problems, especially when your family is only two metres away. We are sad to go out of the tournament and now we have to deal with this situation.

“From what I saw, they (the supporters) started throwing things. You try to stay away from that, but when you see that it’s your family, small children, it’s difficult. I was surprised by the lack of empathy from the Colombia players. I think they should have come to calm the waters.”

Like a lot of people in the stadium, the Uruguay manager Marcelo Bielsa had no idea what was going on at first. He said he initially thought his players “were going to thank the Uruguayan fans for the support. But then I learned that there were other kinds of unfortunate difficulties.”

As for CONMEBOL, South American football’s governing body issued a statement that made no reference whatsoever to any issues around a lack of organisation at the stadium — something that was evident in so many ways on Wednesday night — or safety problems.

“CONMEBOL strongly condemns any act of violence that affects football,” it said. “Our work is based on the conviction that soccer connects and unites us through its positive values. There is no place for intolerance and violence on and off the field. We invite everyone in the remaining days to pour all their passion into cheering on their national teams and having an unforgettable party.”

(Top photo: Nick Tre. Smith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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