‘This is a disaster' — A chaotic Copa América yields an ugly player-fan brawl

Prior to Wednesday, the 2024 Copa América had merely been a mess. It had been chaotic, slapdash and erratic; but consequences were mundane, inconveniences mild. Then, on a feverish night in Charlotte, disorganization spilled out into the open at Bank of America Stadium, where Uruguay players brawled with Colombia fans. Why?

Some will blame the players, whose emotions overheated.

Some will blame fans who perhaps drank too much.

But the real “disaster,” as Uruguay defender José María Giménez frantically and fearfully said, was that the improper planning of this Copa América had left players’ families “in danger.”

That, 12 hours later, is the prevailing explanation for the ugliness that ensued after Colombia beat Uruguay 1-0 in a semifinal. The game had been heated; but the aftermath was indefensible — dangerous, distressing and mad. Crowd disorder boiled over. Several Uruguayan players and staffers climbed into the stands, over seats, to intervene. Some threw (and took) punches. Others tried to rescue their parents and children, who were at risk or in tears or soaked with beer.

“Obviously, if someone is attacking your family, you want to defend them,” said Uruguayan forward Luis Suárez — who was not at the center of the brawl, but was one of a few Uruguayan players who later spoke to media.

“That doesn’t justify the images that you’ve seen,” Suárez clarified. Nothing justifies humans striking humans.

But his teammates “were trying to protect their families, their children,” Suárez said. Some were “cornered” amid the melee, and “things were falling on them.” Players grabbed their powerless kids, and lowered them down to relative safety at field level. A visibly upset Darwin Nuñez, who’d been at the center of the brawl, was later seen holding and consoling his 2-year-old son on the pitch.

“We had to scramble into the stands to take care of our loved ones, including newborn babies,” Giménez said.

Ignacio Alonso, president of Uruguayan Football Association, offered a similar explanation. The players, he said, “simply went to protect their families,” and to “defend people who were helpless.”

The question is why nobody else was there to defend them, why nobody else was capable of protecting them. And that is where the thoroughly poor planning of this Copa América enters the equation.

As a tournament, it was cobbled together over the past two years. It has been disorganized, decentralized and brazenly capitalistic. It has reeked of a soccer confederation, CONMEBOL, which governs the game in South America, that wanted to come here to the States to make money — but failed to consider so many details that go into running a smooth tournament.

Its oversights, until Wednesday, mostly cropped up behind the scenes. Communication was deficient. Branding was uneven. Stadium operations turned media zones into zoos. Some local organizers seemed wholly unprepared to host a soccer match. In Kansas City, for example, where Arrowhead Stadium hosted only one game, Copa América signage was almost nonexistent; corner flags barely fit on the field; the television camera angle was laughable.

Players, throughout the past month, have complained about the temporary grass surfaces. Empty seats raised questions about ticketing strategies. Dizzying heat hospitalized a ref, and raised questions about kickoff times. All of it reflected poorly on organizers. But they were three games away from escaping with their wads of cash, and without a major, lasting stain on the event.

Then, in Charlotte, somebody apparently thought it would be a bright idea to seat players’ families right next to and amid opposing fans.

Nobody, it seems, had a plan for what the families would do or where they should go postgame.

“They did not open an exit to the field so that [family] could leave the stands quickly,” Alonso said.

So who, exactly, is to blame for that? It’s not entirely clear. But the macro problem underlying all these micro problems has been the disconnect between South American soccer authorities and local U.S. agencies or NFL stadiums. CONMEBOL knows fútbol, but it has no experience operating in North Carolina. The North Carolina vendors and staffers it engaged to work Copa América, on the other hand, probably had no experience dealing with South American soccer. Bank of America Stadium has hosted vanilla European soccer friendlies, but never a fiery tournament like this one. Organizers seemingly failed to sufficiently tap into North American soccer entities who could bridge the gap, use their experience and ease the transition.

Fans get into an altercation with players and staff from Uruguay after the Copa Armerica semifinal match between Uruguay and Colombia on Wednesday. (Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports)
Fans get into an altercation with players and staff from Uruguay after the Copa Armerica semifinal match between Uruguay and Colombia on Wednesday. (Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports)

On Wednesday, players criticized a lack of security. Videos showed plenty of uniformed personnel on the scene, but they seemed overwhelmed, or ill-equipped to deal with the escalating violence. They were present, but they were clearly not backed by proper protocols and procedures. They weren’t prepared.

To some extent, there is nothing police or security can do to curtail fans’ disorderly (and often drunken) conduct. But they could’ve done more than they did. And they should’ve been put in position to shield players’ families. Or, perhaps, the families should’ve been put in suites rather than out in the open.

“It was obvious that it could have been avoided,” Uruguay goalkeeper Sergio Rochet said.

But it wasn’t. And the consequence, this time, was “a disaster,” Giménez repeated.

It was “deeply concerning,” global players’ union FIFPRO wrote.

Many Colombians and Uruguayans scoured video in search of evidence to pin blame for the brawl on the other side, but Giménez rightly called out a third party, the people in charge.

“Hopefully,” he said, “when they’re organizing this, they take a bit more caution with families, with people around the stadium.”