Fans of Palmeiras, the Brazilian club with the most national titles, have become so disenchanted with the struggling team that some players have hired security guards.
Violent threats from fan groups have increased as the team faces relegation from the Brazilian league for the second time in 10 years.
Even Brazil’s sports minister has become involved, publicly asking for the threats to stop.
Palmeiras won this year’s Brazilian Cup under coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, but now they are seven points from safety with only four games left.
After the team’s 2-2 home draw against Botafogo last Sunday, some fans tried to invade the pitch and got into an altercation with police officers, injuring two of them and prompting the local soccer federation to ban the team’s biggest fan group from matches.
The night after the game, one of the club’s walls was painted with a death threat to president Arnaldo Tirone and during the week some players said they started receiving anonymous phone calls with serious threats.
Club director Cesar Sampaio, a longtime Palmeiras idol, was told by disgruntled fans to “watch his back.”
“We don’t know if these threats are for real or not, but we are being careful,” Sampaio said. “We’ve been talking to the players to try to keep them from losing it emotionally. It’s important to keep our calm in a moment like this.”
Coach Gilson Kleina, who replaced Scolari after the World Cup-winning coach was not able to improve the team’s situation, said he fears for the players’ safety.
“We have to be careful to avoid a tragedy,” he said. “We have to take care of these players, especially the less experienced ones.”
Argentine striker Hernan Barcos, who has scored 27 goals since joining the club at the beginning of the year, said he will consider leaving Brazil if he no longer feels safe.
“If I have to live like this, driving an armored car and with a gun in my hand, I would rather go home,” he said.
Brazilian Sports Minister Aldo Rebelo, a Palmeiras fan, loudly condemned the threats this week.
“It’s inadmissible to have threats from fans against players of any club,” he said. “There is no place for that in soccer. It’s unacceptable.”
Earlier in the year, a restaurant owned by Palmeiras’ vice president was badly damaged by fans after a loss to rivals Corinthians. That defeat in September also prompted some supporters to partially damage a seating section at the Pacaembu Stadium, which prompted the country’s sports tribunal to ban the club from playing in Sao Paulo for several matches.
The team’s more radical fan groups have had a history of problems with players. In 2009, former Brazil striker Vagner Love left the club after being threatened by supporters and this year midfielder Joao Vitor got into a fight with fans who waited for him to leave the club headquarters to criticize him.