Shock at player brawls in Argentine friendlies

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Buenos Aires (AFP)

Mass on-pitch brawls between players in supposedly "friendly" matches between top Argentine football teams have driven the government to vow to end soccer violence.

Long used to match-day violence involving hooligan gangs, Argentine fans saw ugly rucks erupt on the pitch itself at two recent high-profile friendlies.

Argentina's new President Mauricio Macri, himself a fan and former chairman of top team Boca Juniors, responded by vowing to crack down on soccer violence.

Last week's Buenos Aires summer derby between the country's two most popular teams, Boca and their fierce rivals River Plate, descended into a full-on punch-up.

A match already marred by cynical fouls and insults degenerated after a clash between former Manchester City striker Carlos Tevez of Boca and a River defender.

Five players were sent off and River Plate's goalkeeper was hit by a projectile from the stands, but the match carried on to end in a 1-0 win for River.

On Sunday in the city of Mar del Plata, a match between rivals Estudiantes and Gimnasia was abandoned after a mass brawl broke out on the pitch with kicks, spitting and shoving.

"We all regret it. It got out of hand," said Gimnasia's Uruguayan midfielder Roberto Brum.

He had left the pitch before the ruck broke out but jumped off the bench and ran back on to join in the fight.

Overall 18 players were booked by the referee. It is not yet known what their sanctions will be.

- Soccer security measures -

A day after the second brawl, Security Minister Patricia Bullrich called a meeting of officials from the Argentine Football Association.

"She demanded the utmost severity," said the head of the association, Luis Segura.

"It will be handled by our disciplinary tribunal."

Estudiantes' chairman is Juan Sebastian Veron, a former Manchester United midfielder and Argentina international.

He promised the club would impose "internal sanctions" over the violence.

But he called for critics "to understand the confrontations that there are on the pitch."

"This is absolute instinctive barbarity," said Dario Mendelson, a sports psychologist.

"It is true that there is extra pressure during classic matches, but you have to train your mind to cope with the pressure," he said.

"No preventive measures are being taken here."

- 'Save football' -

Argentine anti-violence football charity Let's Save Football agrees that players are under pressure and blames authorities for being too lax in the past.

"This is violence by the players, but violent groups of the clubs' fans pressure them and they end up offering up that kind of behavior to the stands," said the NGO's leader Mariano Berges.

He is a former judge who probed various cases of football violence.

His group says six people were killed in football-related violence in Argentina last year, 16 in 2014 and 12 in each of the two years before that.

Rules in place since 2013 have restricted visiting fans' movements at football grounds to prevent clashes.

But fights between fans of rival sides have given way to violent power struggles among fellow members of extreme fan groups.

They fight each other over rackets such as ticket sales and parking around the stadium.

Now the violence has spread to the pitch to an alarming degree.

"This reflects many years of exasperating permissiveness by the authorities," said Berges.

- Football fan blacklist -

Macri has called for an end to football violence.

"We clearly hope that all Argentines, be they fans of Boca, River Plate or other teams, or those who do not like football, can see on the pitch a spectacle that is just about sport," he said recently.

His government last week announced it would draw up a national blacklist of fans banned by their clubs for violence.

"It seems there is now political resolve to end this problem," said Berges.

"That is what has been missing over the last 20 years. In that time there has been a lot of talk but nothing done in practice."