It began with an alleged racist insult by an Argentinian on a Brazilian football pitch. Now it threatens to be the biggest diplomatic incident in western hemisphere football since the Honduras-El Salvador "soccer war" of 1969.
No one is suggesting Brazil or Argentina will take up arms over the past week's events, as Honduras and El Salvador did, but a war of words is under way and South America is taking sides. The region's underlying racial tensions, often swept under the carpet since the abolition of slavery, have come to the surface.
It was last Wednesday evening that Buenos Aires side Quilmes lined up against Brazil's S?o Paulo in a Group Three match of the Copa Libertadores, the South American equivalent of the European Champions' league, in the Morumbi stadium, S?o Paulo.
Shortly before half-time, Quilmes defender Leandro Desábato was seen mouthing something to S?o Paulo's black striker Edinaldo Batista, better known by his nickname Grafite. Grafite struck the Argentinian and was sent off. Desábato played on but, at the final whistle, was surrounded on the pitch by Brazilian police detectives and taken to a local jail in handcuffs.
Grafite had accused the Argentinian of calling him a macaco (monkey) and a negro de mierda (shitty nigger). Not exactly an unusual insult in football's history but, last week's incidents in Milan notwithstanding, the times are supposed to be a-changing. Grafite, nick-named after his graphite-like skin colour, pressed charges and Desábato faces up to three years in jail for "slander aggravated by racial prejudice".
The 26-year-old Argentinian was released on $3,800 bail on Friday, after spending two nights in jail, and returned to Buenos Aires with the Quilmes squad and officials, who had refused to go home without him. The player signed a pledge to return to Brazil to face trial.
In a sign of how the racism issue is coming to the fore in South America, as in Europe, the South American Football Confederation, even without waiting for a verdict in S?o Paulo, barred Desábato from the rest of this season's Copa Libertadores tournament.
By yesterday, the war of words was in full swing. The Brazilian Senate held an emergency meeting to discuss the repercussions. Brazilian social groups, the media, many players and even the government backed Grafite and called for "an exemplary punishment".
The Argentinian media said that Desábato had been "crucified". "This has all been a nightmare," said Argentinian Interior Minister Anibal Fernandez, a Quilmes supporter. "These insults are common on the pitch when the adrenalin is flowing. There is no racism in Argentinian football."
Not quite true. Grafite had previously been called a monkey by Quilmes fans in the home leg of the fixture in Buenos Aires, forcing the club to apologise to him publicly. Quilmes officials claimed the Brazilian was out for revenge this week and had "set Desábato up". Daniel Razzetto, president of Quilmes said: "They treated Desábato as though he was a serial killer of negros, when the poor guy had a pregnant wife weeping for him at home in Buenos Aires."
"It seems that in Brazil, there's competition with Europe to see which country is leading the fight against racism," said another Quilmes official, Jose Luis Meizner.
As always, Argentinian legend Diego Maradona weighed in. "In the heat of a match, all sorts of nonsense gets said. Quilmes shouldn't be made the bad guys in this movie."
"Maradona's brain is obviously not functioning normally," replied S?o Paulo coach Emerson Le?o, hinting at the former World Cup star's drug problems. "For reasons we all know, we can't take his statements seriously."
As it happened, the S?o Paulo events coincided with a visit to Africa by Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, when he apologised for Brazil's role in the slave trade from the 16th century until it abolished slavery in 1888. The visit was seen as a sign of his country's attempts to come to terms with continuing racism against descendants of slaves, almost half of Brazil's 180 million population.
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