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RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Lionel Messi led his Argentina lineup off the field and into the locker rooms because of a brawl between rival fans in Brazil, delaying the start of their South American World Cup qualifier by 27 minutes Tuesday at the Maracana Stadium.
Argentina players asked fans in the stands for calm before heading to the locker rooms. Goalkeeper Dibu Martinez raced to one of the rails in front of the Argentina fans to ask police to stop the violence.
Police used batons to break up the fights in the crowd. Parts of seating were being thrown and hit some spectators behind one of the goals. At least one fan left the stadium bleeding from his head.
Argentina told Brazil officials they would only return to the pitch after the situation was calm. They returned after 22 minutes in the locker rooms, and warmed up for several minutes before the game was finally started.
It was 0-0 at halftime.
As the match began, dozens of police surrounded Argentina fans as they cheered, and even more security faced toward them on the pitch. Police gathered around the section that can hold about 3,000 fans.
All 69,000 tickets for the match in Rio de Janeiro were sold. Brazil fans, who jeered and applauded Messi before the brawl began, chanted against him when he returned to the pitch.
Brazil players remained on the pitch and warmed up while waiting for the Argentina team to return.
Before the encounter, many Brazil fans warmed up to the Argentine star, with dozens of children wearing Messi jerseys of his previous club, Barcelona, and Inter Miami.
Messi, who has a lot of fans in Brazil not only because of his incredible skills on the field, but also because of his respect for the five-time World Cup champions.
Argentina leads South American World Cup qualifying with 12 points from five games. Brazil is in fifth position. Both teams lost their previous games in the 10-team round-robin competition.
The rivalry between Brazil and Argentina started at the club level and grew after the Argentinians won their first World Cup title in 1978. The Brazilians beat Argentina 3-1 in the second phase of the 1982 World Cup, and the Argentines responded with a 1-0 victory eight years later in the round of 16.
The reginal rivals have since played fierce matches in World Cup qualifying and in Copa America, but not in World Cups.
They were expected to face off in the semifinals last year in Qatar, but Brazil was knocked out by Croatia in the quarterfinals before Argentina went on to win the title for a third time.
The heated debate over who is the best footballer in history, with most Brazilians going for Pele and Argentinians split between Messi and Diego Maradona, has also intensified the rivalry.
On Nov. 4, Brazil’s Fluminense won the Copa Libertadores final at the Maracana Stadium after a week of street fights between some of its supporters and those of Argentina’s Boca Juniors.