SAO PAULO (AP) — A ruling by Brazil's sports tribunal on Monday saved Fluminense from being relegated to the second division of the Brazilian league next year, the latest controversy to hit football in the country hosting the World Cup.
The four-time Brazilian champion will be allowed to stay in the top flight because another team was docked points for using a suspended player in the tournament's final round.
The player was on the field for about 15 minutes and the match had no implication in the final outcome of the tournament, but the tribunal unanimously ruled that Portuguesa should be docked four points because of the irregularity, dropping it below Fluminense in the 20-team standings.
Monday's hearing was broadcast live by most sports channels in Brazil and hundreds of fans from several clubs protested outside the tribunal. Portuguesa fans arrived from Sao Paulo in two buses to protest, calling for "justice" in football. Fluminense supporters also were present, and their loud chants were clearly heard inside the tribunal. There was increased police security to separate the fans in Rio de Janeiro.
The controversial decision could further tarnish the image of Brazilian football, after images of fan violence were broadcast around the world during the final weekend of the league and a worker died Saturday at a construction site of a World Cup stadium.
Portuguesa, whose biggest achievement was a runner-up finish in the 1996 Brazilian league, is expected to appeal the ruling and even threatened to take the case outside the sports courts, meaning a final decision may not come before the end of the year. The club last played in the second division in 2011.
"This is absurd. If it was the other way around, would they relegate Fluminense?" Portuguesa President Manuel da Lupa said. "It's terrible for something like this to happen in the country hosting the World Cup just a few months from now. We finished the league in 12th place but in the end will have to play in the second division. This is immoral."
Portuguesa had finished with 48 points and had advanced to play in next year's Copa Sudamericana, but with Monday's ruling if fell to 44 points, two behind Fluminense.
"The biggest loser today was the Brazilian league, was Brazilian football," said Eduardo Tironi, a football analyst with ESPN Brasil.
It is not the first time Fluminense benefits from an off-the-field ruling to avoid relegation. The club was relegated for the first time in 1996 but remained in the top flight because of supposed refereeing irregularities at the time. Fluminense was relegated again in 1997 and then dropped to the third flight the following year, but a change in the competition's format allowed the club to move straight into the first division in 2000.
Portuguesa lawyer Joao Zanforlim said "we need to respect what happened on the field."
But even the club admitted to a mistake when it used reserve midfielder Heverton in the final round after he had been suspended for two matches for a red card in a previous round. Portuguesa said it was mistakenly advised by one of its lawyers that it was a one-game suspension, so it thought the player was allowed to play.
The club claimed that Heverton's two-game suspension couldn't have taken effect in the final round because the document announcing the punishment was only officially published on Monday, a day after the match. The tribunal said Portuguesa knew of the punishment right away because it was represented at that hearing.
"It's clear that Portuguesa made a mistake," said Paulo Valed Perry, one of the sports tribunal's members.
Portuguesa has fired the lawyer that represented the club at Heverton's hearing.
Heverton received a two-match suspension for cursing at the referee after the final whistle in a Nov. 24 match against Bahia. He entered the team's final match in the 78th minute.
Fluminense won its match in the final round on Dec. 8 but at the time that was not enough to avoid becoming the first defending Brazilian champion to be relegated.
"The rules have to be followed, it's simple," Fluminense lawyer Mario Bittencourt said. "The decision can't be made with emotion, only with reason."
Flamengo also lost four points because of an alleged irregular use of left back Andre Santos in the last round, dropping the popular club from 11th place to 16th place, just outside relegation zone with 45 points.
Four-time Brazilian champion Vasco da Gama was also relegated to the second division, but it will not benefit from Portuguesa's punishment because it still remains behind the Sao Paulo club.
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