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BBC Sport's Tim Vickery
"It resembled a war zone"
 real 14k

Sunday, 31 December, 2000, 05:07 GMT
A predictable tragedy
Stretcher bearers pass a helicopter on the pitch
Stretcher bearers pass a helicopter on the pitch
The eagerly awaited final of the Brazilian Championship between Vasco da Gama and São Caetano turned into chaos and tragedy.

159 people were injured, three of them seriously, after a section of fencing collapsed.

BBC Sport Online's South American correspondent Tim Vickery saw it happen.

It is said that Rio de Janeiro has two seasons - summer, and the fires of hell.

The devil certainly did his worst for Saturday's final of the Brazilian Championship.

Vasco da Gama are proud of their São Januário stadium. Completed in 1927, its construction was a response to the ostracism they faced from the traditional Rio clubs.

Vasco had revolutionised the game by selecting black and poor white players.

Supporters flood the pitch
Supporters flood onto the pitch
A series of measures were taken to marginalise the club, one of which was the requirement on every first division team to have its own ground.

Vasco didn't, so raising funds from their supporters they clubbed together to build what they claim was the biggest stadium in Latin America at the time.

São Januário is a fascinating historical monument - but that is the problem.

It is a musuem piece, utterly inadaquate to stage a game of the size of Saturday's.

Frequent warnings

This is not being wise after the event.

I mentioned my concerns in the match preview I filed for the BBC World Service.

I have frequently broadcast warnings about the dangers of this ground. It really didn't take a genius to spot the potential problems.

Off the record, club officials shared my worries. The kick off time was 4pm, absurd in high summer, but necessary because the all-powerful TV Globo wanted the game to be over before the 6 o'clock start of their endless soap operas.

I arrived nearly two hours early, and the ground was nearly packed.

Fans in obvious distress
Fans in obvious distress
The seats reserved for the press are in the shade; even so the heat was intense.

It must have been unbearable over the other side, where the terraces feel the full force of the sun.

Well over an hour before kick-off it was apparent that the ground was over-full.

More tickets had been sold - or people let in - than the stadium could reasonably be expected to accomodate.

Many supporters saw little or nothing of the 24 minutes of football that were played.

Overcrowding is standard practise at São Januário. It is easy for journalists to spot because we are surrounded by fans who can't find a space, and have to be prevented by security staff from claiming an empty seat amid the press.

Romario the catalyst

For years the problem of overcrowding at the ground has been like a dormant volcano.

Heat and the importance of the game transformed it into an explosive force that put at risk the lives of hundreds.

The substitution of Romário was the catalyst. After 22 minutes he limped off with one of his frequent muscle problems.

Many Vasco supporters have not forgotten Edmundo, the wayward striker whose goals took the club to the title in 1997.

Once firm friends, Romário and Edmundo are now bitter enemies. They manged to play together for the 10 days of the Club World Championship, but almost immediatly afterwards it became impossible to have both at the same club.

Romario leaves the field in pain
Romario leaves the field in pain
Edmundo was loaned to Santos, but a section of Vasco fans continue to chant his name.

It was in that same section that a fight appeared to break out just after Romário limped off the pitch.

As keeper Helton prepared to take a goal kick, there was movement in the terraces high to his left. Heat and tension left fans more prone to panic.

People rushed to distance themselves from the trouble-spot, and a human ripple gained intensity as it moved down the terraces, throwing those at the front forward with a force which smashed 30 metres of fencing.

A fleet of ambulances were soon on the scene, and then helicopters.

Over an hour after the incident the wounded were still being carried away on stretchers.

Vasco claim title

With astonishing insensitivity Vasco were pushing for the match to resume.

It took a phone call from the governor of Rio de Janeiro to put a stop to such nonsense.

He had a helicopter team have a look and come to the only sane conclusion - a penalty to Vasco not given, or a goal to São Caetano and the tragedy could have been worse.

Vasco responded to the news that the game had been abandoned by proclaiming themselves champions and sending their players out for a rather bashful lap of honour.

In the few minutes that were played Vasco's exceptional young keeper Helton produced the best double save I have ever seen.

It should be a memory to last a lifetime, but it is eclipsed by scenes of avoidable human suffering, the product of the negligance, greed and stupidity of those who run Brazilian football.

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30 Dec 00 |  Americas
Fence collapse hits soccer final
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