SAO PAULO - (AP) – (Eds: With AP Photos.) By TALES AZZONI AP Sports Writer Players are hiring bodyguards. Death threats are painted on walls. The anonymous phone calls send a chill. The country's sports minister says this is all ''unacceptable.''
The shadow of violence darkens around Palmeiras, the Brazilian soccer club with the most national titles. But Palmeiras is struggling - nearing relegation in the Brazilian league for the second time in 10 years - and threats grow from agitated and angry fans.
Coach Gilson Kleina talks about a tragedy waiting to happen. Argentina striker Hernan Barcos, the team's top player, wonders if it's worth staying with the club if he starts fearing for his safety.
Palmeiras won this year's Brazilian Cup under coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, but now it is seven points from dropping to a lower division with only four games left.
After a disappointing 2-2 home draw against Botafogo last Sunday, some fans tried to storm the field. They fought with police, injuring two officers. That prompted 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 Arnaldo Tirone, the club president. During the week some players said they began 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.''
Kleina, who replaced Scolari after the World Cup-winning coach wasn't able to improve the team's play, says the team must be vigilant.
''We have to take care of these players, especially the less experienced ones,'' he said.
Barcos has scored 27 goals since joining the club in the beginning of the year. Whether he remains is unclear.
''If it's to live like this, driving an armored car and with a gun in hand, I would rather go home,'' he said.
Sports Minister Aldo Rebelo, a Palmeiras fan, 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 football. It's unacceptable.''
Earlier in the year, a restaurant owned by Palmeiras' vice president was badly damaged by fans after a loss to rival Corinthians. That defeat in September also prompted some supporters to damage a seating section at Pacaembu Stadium. In turn, the country's sports tribunal banned the club from playing in Sao Paulo for several matches.
Palmeiras is 18th in the 20-team Brazilian league with only 33 points from 34 matches. It has lost 19 times, more than half its matches.
Its next game is Sunday, at home against league leader Fluminense. The match can give Fluminense the title and could determine Palmeiras' fate. Palmeiras trails 17th-place Sport by three points and 16th-place Bahia by seven. The bottom four clubs are demoted.
''I partly agree with critics who say I'm the man responsible for the team's current situation, but by the same token I have to be one of the men responsible for the team's win in the Brazilian Cup,'' said Scolari, who in 1999 led Palmeiras to the Copa Libertadores title.
The team's more radical fan groups have a history of problems with players. In 2009, former Brazil striker Vagner Love left the club after he was threatened on the street. This year, midfielder Joao Vitor got into a fight with fans who waited for him to leave the club headquarters.
In an attempt to avoid problems this year, the team has used alternate travel routes and reinforced security during practices and games.
Palmeiras was relegated for the first time in 2002 and easily returned to the top tier the following year. The team will open its new stadium in 2013, and the following year it will celebrate its centennial. Palmeiras has won eight national championships, two Brazilian Cups, a Champion Cup and the second-division title.
Only the famed club Santos can match Palmeiras' eight league championships. The last time Palmeiras won the league was in 1994, with a team coached by Vanderlei Luxemburgo and led by Roberto Carlos, Zinho, Mazinho, Edilson, Edmundo and Sampaio.
''We have to keep our focus on trying to avoid relegation, we haven't been demoted yet,'' Sampaio said. ''The threats exist but there's been no violence. We need to make sure the players can be focused only on what they need to do on the field.''
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