Midway through the first half of Wednesday's game, Corinthians' Copa Libertadores debut became more than simply a football game, as a fatal tragedy in the stands shook South American spectators in what may mark the beginning of a revolution in stadiums all over the continent.
Corinthians' 1-1 draw vs. San Jose last week showed the defending champions are older and more poised than they were last year but also a lot more vulnerable defensively. Yet the main story here is the tragic death of 14-year-old Kevin Beltran from a flare gun accident that will scar several families forever, as events like this put games like this into context when it comes to what's important.
Alessandro is part of a defensive system that has underperformed this year
Last year, Corinthians managed to become Libertadores champions by only allowing four goals in the entire tournament.
No, one goal in one game is not cause for alarm. But how about seven goals in four games? Ah, now I have your attention, right?
The three main causes for Corinthians' woes are simpler than fans would initially think, but also harder to fix.
Firstly, it is undeniable that Corinthians' back line is slower, especially the outside backs. Its captain, Alessandro, is 34 and Fabio Santos is 27.
Most of the goals scored against Corinthians have been off their outside defenders' backs. In fact, this is a recurring theme from last year, too.
However, there is one enormous difference now: the club from Sao Paulo then featured Leandro Castan, a quick defender with long strides that could overcome his outside backs' lack of speed and cover the space behind them. Newcomer Gil and replacement Paulo Andre have not been nearly as successful at that.
Second, they are missing the presence of Chicao, who has been out all year with a ruptured ligament in his right knee. He and Paulo Andre had some nice chemistry going since Castan's departure from the Parque Sao Jorge. They played all of the Brasileirao together and conquered the 2012 Club World Cup together.
Gil and Paulo Andre, however, don't understand their responsibilities at different positions, the two "knock heads" constantly on the pitch.
Finally, the keeper Cassio is not having a career year. Clearly, not every goal is the goalie's fault (Cassio could do nothing to stop San Jose's goal), but he has been a lot less reliable and secure than last year.
For the record, watch San Jose's goal again. Notice how Paulo Andre and Gil aren't guarding anyone and are occupying practically the same space. The cross comes from the area Alessandro should have been guarding. Salcedo, the scorer, was guarded instead by Fabio Santos.
Very interesting, no?
"Call me up, coach!"
Corinthians spent a lot of money this past offseason in an attempt to rejuvenate and improve their squad. Wouldn't it just make sense for them to make use of their spent money? Alexandre Pato and Renato Augusto cost the club a combined €18.5 million, but neither start.
We understand (and agree) with coach Tite's reluctance to start them right away. Like every other player on the squad, Pato and Augusto needed to earn their spot in the starting 11.
That time has passed, though.
Pato has already scored two goals for the club and, while Augusto has failed to score thus far, he brings something to the table that no other Corinthians player (short of Paulinho) bring: quality passing, while still being able to run constantly at a high pace for 90 minutes.
The two players have been subbed in virtually every single game they were available this season and have impressed in their limited action. In the few occasions they have started (in the state tournament, when the starters are resting), Corinthians flows much better.
Pato and Augusto are both quick and light players that will give Corinthians a higher offensive dynamic. That is just what the doctor ordered to end Corinthians' struggles.
Guerrero is getting it done
If Corinthians has been under par lately, Paolo Guerrero is the one player who has exceeded every expectation.
The dude can just flat out score. He put the ball in the net against San Jose and has been doing the same constantly at the state tournament.
Guerrero's size, athletic ability and pure goal-scorer instincts make him so difficult to guard. He seems to be at the right place at the right time every possession.
Also, he is one of those true "No. 9s" that will touch the ball only four to five times per game but will score in two of those opportunities.
Guerrero is quickly becoming the most reliable player in a squad full of talent.
Despite Corinthians' defensive struggles and occasional lack of offensive movement, the Brazilian team actually dominated their Bolivian rivals for the entire first half.
The first fifteen minutes were nothing short of a massacre. Guerrero had his first opportunity with literally 18 seconds on the clock and would score his goal only five minutes later.
Emerson Sheik still had at least two chances and Cassio barely needed to work before the ref called the game to a halt. The second half was a lot different.
Not only did San Jose tie up the game, but Corinthians seemed to be running out of breath.
Well, guess what? They literally were.
It is impossibly difficult to breathe in an altitude like that, as Corinthians now know. It has been a constant problem in the Libertadores, too. Unfortunately, though, the CONMENBOL (the tournament's organizer) allows it as a playing site for all teams.
The issue is simple: athletes cannot play at such high, unsafe altitudes. It is harmful for a player's health to exercise at such an elevation for 90 minutes when they are that far from sea level. Something needs to be done now, before a tragedy ensues.
As alluded to before, the game was the least important part of this game.
Fourteen-year-old Kevin Beltran passed away after a flare was launched from the Corinthians supporters' side of the stadium, striking him in the face.
The tragedy resonated all over South America and the rest of the football world, clearly for good reason.
CONMENBOL was quick to act and deny Corinthians the rights to fans for the next two months, a small penalty considering the irreparable damage of a mother and a father losing their son.
As of Feb. 25, 12 members of the Corinthians fan club "Gavioes da Fiel" are under custody in Bolivia.
However, on Feb. 24, a 17-year-old member of the same club admitted to being the flare's holder at the time. Since he is a minor, he cannot be taken under custody in Bolivia. But to complicate matters further, the Bolivian press and police have videos that may prove the 17-year-old's innocence.
Either way, what happened on Feb. 20 must be taken as a lesson to CONMENBOL. Why were there flares in the stadium in the first place? Fireworks are dangerous and should not be taken lightly. The fact that such a weapon was even allowed in the stadium is mind-boggling.
CONMENBOL did the right thing punishing Corinthians, but the South American Football Confederation must follow up. It needs to guarantee something like this will never happen again.
Kevin Beltran's death must be the last of this type of tragedy. Security in soccer stadiums must be more cognizant of what is making it is gaining admittance past the gates.