David Haye v Wladimir Klitschko: Bloody end feared to battle of River Plate

David Haye says he's ideally prepared for titanic clash with Wladimir Klitschko and is determined to win the five titles up for grabs before retiring

Thirty three years ago yesterday, on a carpet of ticker-tape at the Monumental stadium in Buenos Aires, Argentina won the World Cup for the first time. A River Plate man, Ubaldo Fillol, was in goal for them that day.

Two more River Plate men, Oscar Ortiz and Leopoldo Luque, were in the attack and when the time came to lift the trophy a River Plate man lifted it first. Then, as now, Daniel Passarella belonged to the team with the iconic red stripe, the club they call Los Millonarios - The Millionaires.

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Passarella played for nine years for River, then managed them for five years and has been president for the last 18 months, but he's a hero no more.

A week ago, on the final day of the regular season, River lost yet another match, the latest set-back in a calamitous few years. A fan suffered a heart attack and died. The players were escorted off the pitch under the protection of riot police.

In their history, River have won 33 national titles and two Libertadores trophies, the South American equivalent of the Champions League but, during the week, they lost the first leg of a survival play-off against Belgrano, the kind of second division outfit they used to annihilate.

Some River fans broke through perimeter fencing to castigate their players, above, and the match was suspended for 20 minutes while the hooligans - Los Borrachos del Tabos (The Drunks in the Stands) as River's hardcore are known - were dealt with. The following night, a furious mob, 500-strong, gathered outside the Monumental stadium and chanted Passarella's name in a way that people would have thought impossible in his heyday.

They abused the president for his faith in the coach, JJ Lopez. They abused the coach for the results that brought them to the brink of the drop. And they abused the press just for being there. The police blasted them with water cannon, but those fans will be back today for the second leg, no question.

And so will the police. Tensions are running so high that there'll be 1,200 officers in the Monumental and another 1,300 outside. Club football in Argentina has become lawless. There have been 13 football-related deaths in the last year. Since March, when a fan was beaten by police and later died, four league games have been delayed or abandoned because of violence. It's endemic. A few weeks ago, before a match between Newell's Old Boys and San Lorenzo, two thugs on motorbikes fired 12 gunshots at rival supporters. Last month, a riot ended a match involving Estudiantes and Huracan.

These fights are not just between opposing fans. There are in-club turf wars going on, some effectively sanctioned by the clubs themselves. Earlier in the year, in the streets around River's stadium in the Belgrano district of Buenos Aires there was a gun-fight. The story had it that officials from River had met gang members that evening and had revealed which thugs would get, among other things, the lucrative car park rights on match days. Just after the meeting broke up the shooting began.

Like most clubs, River has politicians in its upper echelons. Politicians need votes and votes can be swung by leaders of large hooligan gangs. So these guys end up owning fast food stalls at grounds or running merchandising outlets or touting tickets. Gustavo Grabia, the writer and expert on football hooliganism in Argentina, said recently that the top half-dozen figures at the head of these gangs stand to make about $80,000 a year in a country where 40 per cent of the population live on an annual income of $2,500.

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It is also said that, when Gonzalo Higuain went from River to Real Madrid, the club gave the gangs $50,000 from the sale, just to keep them sweet. But kickbacks are not calming the mood much these days. Today, against Belgrano, River must turn around a 2-0 first-leg deficit or they will be relegated for the first time in their history. If that happens, 2,500 police are in for the longest night.

This soap opera with River has captivated millions. "This is a punishment for those who voted for Passarella (as president)," said a bitter Norberto Alonso last week. Alonso is not just a River legend but a former River team-mate of Passarella's who was in Passarella's World Cup winning squad in 1978.

For his part, Passarella has said he will speak next week about the truly guilty men who plunged River into this terrible crisis - the club's previous regime. If the worst happens tonight then it's doubtful that anybody is going to want to hear Passarella's explanation. There will be a requiem for River's lost days played against a backdrop of violence in Buenos Aires.

Their history and their iconic jersey and their past heroes can't save River now. Two goals down and hapless, you wonder if anything will.

tom english