March 11, 2008 — It’s past noon at the Round Table Pizza in the Price Center at UCSD, and there are three groups of young men watching European soccer quarterfinals on five different large plasma screens mounted to the walls: one group of five Americans, another of three British exchange students, and a third of eight Asian students. The Yanks and Limeys are drinking beer and eating pizza; the Asian young men eat pizza and are quiet, watching the game with inert tension.
It’s Liverpool playing against Manchester. At least that’s what I see on the screens. The loudest spectators are the fellows from Great Britain — they get excited, high-five one another, boo when a score is not made. The American guys are rowdy too, but not the way Americans get rambunctious in a bar while they watch NFL or Major League Baseball.
The Asian gentlemen do not make a sound.
I’m not sure who is rooting for whom, but it is apparent that the Americans are not for the same team as the Brits; the two groups eye one another, and I wonder if a brawl will break out. I will admit, with a smidgen of shame, that I was hoping it might come to fists — the violence of different opinions — because I was curious about what extremes people reach when defending the honor of their chosen sports team.
International soccer has a reputation for bursts of violence and even rioting, sometimes making scuffles between Chargers and Raiders fans appear trivial. The following is a selected list of notable violence in the history of contemporary sports fandom:
May 24, 1964
Lima, Peru. Three hundred eighteen people are killed and another 500 injured in riots after Argentina beats Peru in an Olympic qualifying match. The bedlam discharges when the referee disallows a Peruvian goal in the final two minutes.
October 31, 1976
Yaoundé, Cameroon. A penalty kick was awarded to Cameroon in a World Cup qualifying match vs. the Congo. The Congolese goalie attacked the Gambian referee. Fighting escalated. The president of Cameroon, watching the game at home, sent in paratroopers by helicopter. Two bystanders were killed.
October 20, 1982
Moscow, USSR. Three hundred forty reportedly killed at a European Cup match between Soviet Spartak and Haarlem of the Netherlands. Police were accused of pushing fans down an icy staircase before the end of the match. A late goal was scored, and exiting fans tried to re-enter the stadium and create a “human mincer.” Russian officials disputed the claims, saying that only 61 had died and that police never pushed any fans.
July 13, 1998
The Brazilians take their soccer seriously, even when they lose. I was living in the Gaslamp, and one summer afternoon a group of 50 or more Brazilian nationals began an impromptu parade down Fourth Avenue, going north. They had drums, whistles, singing, women taking their shirts off and exposing bare breasts. People standing around decided to join them, and so did I, at the insistence of a friend I was with. “Why not?” she said. Why not celebrate, indeed? The Brazilian team had lost the World Cup to France 3–0. Initially, I thought they were celebrating a win. But the Brazilians, I discovered, just like to have a good time, with parades and other kinds of fun. The police showed up and escorted the parade for a while, then asked for it to disband. Nothing dangerous or criminal happened.
“You never see that in America,” said my friend. “When teams lose, people get angry and start fights.”
Local bartender Edwin Decker recalls an infamous San Diego incident from 1996. “It was a football Sunday at a now-defunct place in O.B. called First Round Draft,” he says. “The Chargers were playing and the Raiders were playing, but not against each other. There was a table of three Charger fans watching their game, and across the way was a table of two Raiders fans watching theirs. Both tables were talking shit to each other. I could tell that the Raiders table was taking it more seriously than the Chargers table, especially one guy in particular, who was enormous and rather tightly wound.
“The Chargers game ended first with a victory. The Raiders/Chiefs game was almost over, with the Raiders behind, so the table of Chargers fans were shouting with glee and generally pissing off the Raiders fans. The Raiders game was in the final seconds, with Jeff Hostetler driving for a go-ahead touchdown. They got to about the Chiefs 30-yard line and Hostetler threw a pick, and the game was over. The table of Chargers fans went nuts, taunting and smack-talking. I could see the one Raider fan, the huge one, getting all riled up, turning red in the face and just itching to do something.
“Suddenly,” Decker claims, “he attacks. He rushed the table of three Chargers fans, found the smallest guy, and threw a fist into his face that crackled through the room. The force knocked him to the ground, and the Raiders fan jumped on top of him. He landed fist after fist on the poor Chargers fan and just stayed on top, putting all his weight onto the guy.
“Incidentally, this is all happening at my feet,” Decker notes. “So me and a couple others jumped on the Raiders fan’s back to try and pull him off the guy. When I grabbed him, his body was as hard as a rock. My first thought was roid rage.
“At this point the Raiders fan burrowed his mouth into the side of the Chargers fan’s head, started shaking his mouth and head like a shark trying to rip flesh off his prey and then — plop! Out of the pile, like a football in a fumble frenzy, rolls the ear.
“I thought it was a finger — it was about that size. Then the Raiders fan, blood dripping from his mouth, stands up, high-fives his other Raiders fan friend, and strolls out the side door as though nothing happened.