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.
“The commotion to help the one-eared Chargers fan was such that no one noticed the assailant leave,” continues Decker. “I decided to follow him to see if he was driving and get a license number. The crime of mayhem is a felony. It is the willful dismemberment or crippling of another person. Fuck that guy, I thought. I followed them outside, but to my dismay, they did not have a car. They just proceeded to walk north on Bacon Street. At that point, I went back inside. The place was still in chaos. The Chargers fan was bleeding down the neck, and the ear was in a plastic bag and looked like a bloody turd. That was when I uttered six words I never thought I would ever say:
“ ‘Somebody put that ear on ice!’
“Then a bartender came out with a bag of ice, and they put the ear in it.”
March 27, 2005
Bamako, Mali. Angry Mali soccer fans set cars on fire, looted stores, and ruined monuments hours after rushing onto the field and forcing the suspension of a World Cup qualifying game against Togo. The fans were angered when Togo took a 2–1 lead late in the game. Dozens of fans rushed the field. Officials stopped the game, and state television immediately cut the live transmission.
February 7, 2007
After the death of a 38-year-old policeman during a match between Sicilian teams Catania and Palermo, Italian authorities temporarily suspended games and threatened to ban all soccer matches if fans continued to engage in violence. The Associated Press reported that this prospect did not sit well in Italy, “where soccer is a religion for many.” The Vatican’s newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, stated, “Let’s acknowledge this: soccer in Italy dies…with the policeman.”
Other deaths and injuries at international games result from stands crashing down when too many people are in them and stamping their feet or when massive crowds rush entrances, crushing and stampeding over one another. The majority of this violence is over soccer (“the real football” outside the U.S.) and overshadows violence in American sports games.
Did the ancient Greeks behave this way at Olympic games (although, in early Olympics, there were death matches between athletes trained to kill and die in the arena)? What causes this mass hysteria when a team is losing or loses?
May 17, 2007
Robert Charles Comer, 50, was executed in Arizona for murder and rape. According to the Associated Press, when Warden Carson McWilliams asked Comer if he had any last words, Comer, a California native, stated, “Yes — go Raiders.”
“When the foreigners come in for the soccer games, they don’t usually get too out of control,” says Rick, who asked not to be identified. He also asked that I withhold the name of the sports bar he works (“I’ll get fired for it,” he said). “Brazilian, French, Canadians — French-Canadians! — Kiwis and Aussies, the Brits, they love their soccer all right, and they love to drink, but they just shout and slam their fists on the table. I’ve found that if a fight starts — or an almost-fight, since we usually stop it or tell them to take it to the streets — it’s because of local American patrons. They’ll call the foreigners pussies or pansies, say that soccer is not real ‘football.’ The foreigners will make fun of the Chargers, they’ll say, ‘That’s not football, it should be called handball.’ Sometimes it’s all in fun, but sometimes someone wants to throw a punch, and it’s usually an American who throws it.”
February 1, 2008
Violence is not limited to the stadiums and bars. Eduardo Jimenez Arenas, a San Ysidro High School soccer coach, was accused of choking an opposing team’s player and punching another teenager that ended the soccer game, resulting in a brawl involving an estimated 20–50 people and witnessed by 200.
Arenas spent four days in jail. He denied choking or punching anyone. “I am not guilty about the things they said about me,” he told NBC 7/39 News in an interview, claiming he was only trying to stop the fighting. He accused a parent from Otay Ranch of instigating the brawl. “He started insulting me.” He was initially suspended, but the district attorney’s office declined to press charges.
Alberto “Tito” Ayala, 17, who was watching the game, at first alleged that Arenas hit him when Ayala got involved in the ruckus. The boy’s family filed a claim for $1 million against the Sweetwater Union High School District; however, after an investigation, Chula Vista Police arrested Sergio Perez, 18, a student at San Ysidro High, for kicking Ayala in the head several times. A number of witnesses claim Perez instigated the violence. Perez is charged with assault with force and battery causing serious bodily injury; his trial begins in July, and if convicted of these felony charges, he could face a maximum of four years in prison.
An ex-girlfriend once told me that her father was banned from her North County high school girls’ soccer matches when he started a fight with the referee. “It was embarrassing,” she said. “He just jumped out of the stands and ran onto the field and started hitting the ref.”
“The Australians can get out of control at times,” says Rick. “They’re in the bars at 6:00 a.m. because their bodies are still on Aussie time and the games are starting then. By 10:00 in the morning, they’re trashed and ready to wrestle each other and fight Americans, if any are around. I would not recommend coming into a bar that early with the foreign guys watching the game.”
“So what is it?” I ask. “What makes guys lose control over a simple game?”
He shrugs and says, “Who knows — national identity, I would guess. Pride for the homeland? The same shit that starts wars.”
March 9, 2008
All the Irish pubs in the Gaslamp show the soccer games. I go to a fairly new Irish bar in Ocean Beach to see who is watching the games. All the flat-screen TVs on the wall are on, one tuned to ESPN, but there are no games shown. I ask a bartendress wearing a green miniskirt and a green hat what time the crowds come in to watch soccer. She thinks I am asking to see soccer myself; she looks for the remote control and then scans the TV for a game. “Which country you like?” she asks. I repeat my question. “Oh,” she says, “well, we don’t get any groups, just the occasional person who wants to see a game.”
People just drink at this bar, she hints.
“Good thing too,” says a man sipping a pint of green ale (it’s a week from St. Patrick’s Day) at the counter. “A bunch of drunk Irish types ogling soccer only means the brass knuckles will come out.”
March 10, 2008
Bogotá, Colombia. Violence erupted during America de Cali’s match against Deportivo de Cali. Fighting moved from the stands to the field and then the streets. Armored riot police arrived, which only united the enraged fans against the officers. The police were bombarded with rocks and homemade explosives. One officer was stabbed three times. America de Cali’s manager was fined 11 games and $2500 for attacking the Deportivo manager. This riot, however, was not over teams and scores but started by an apparently jealous boyfriend who picked a fight with a man flirting with his girlfriend.
March 16, 2008
I’m in a Tijuana cantina off First and Los Niños Héroes. A soccer (fútbol) game is on two TVs, the Santos vs. the Jaguares. I arrive halfway through the game. The cantina is full — perhaps 40–50 men, most local residents, a couple of Americans, and one Japanese tourist who looks out of place — I’m not sure if he is here for the game or looking for a prostitute. There are half a dozen women in the bar, and they all stand off to the side, looking bored; no one is paying attention to them, buying them drinks or dancing with them; all eyes are on the TV. I’m not sure where the game is being broadcast from, but the stadium stands are packed with people jumping up and down, cheering or booing, which the hombres in this cantina emulate.
“Who you for, homie?” a drunk guy in his 30s asks me in strained English as I stand by the counter, trying to get a beer.
“You have to be for somebody,” he says in Spanish.
I take a chance: “Los Santos.”
Slowly, he smiles. “You know the winners,” he says, slapping me on the back. He offers to buy me a beer.
Los Santos are not winning, however; within half an hour, the Jaguares are ahead 3–0, scoring two goals back-to-back in less than five minutes. Half the men in the bar go wild, cheer, toss bottles against the wall. The others are not happy, including the fellow who bought me a beer — his bloodshot eyes squint and his fists clench. I think that I am about to witness some typical across-the-border violence, or I may find myself in the wrong place at the wrong time. I understand now that it is all about projection and identity — that team out there you’re rooting for is you. When they win, you feel good about yourself; when they lose, you become embarrassed, angry, and defensive. The anthropology, psychology, and sociology of it all fascinate me even more than usual, especially since I can feel it in the warm air inside the cantina, charged with the possibility of sudden brutality.
Three federales stroll in, swaggering with macho authority, decked out in riot-gear regalia — Kevlar vests and masks, machine guns in hand, grenades on their belts. The bar goes very quiet, and everyone stares at their drinks, not the TV, nor the federales. This is a good time to duck out, I tell myself.
On the street, the Mexican army has stopped traffic; troop transports sit still in the streets, Humvees with gun mounts are ready for action, and soldiers in khaki uniforms and combat gear stand by the entrances to cantinas and hotels. They are making their presence known in the city.
The three federales step out of the cantina behind me and tell the soldiers the score of the game. Heads nod. Everything is very quiet on the street, none of the laughter and loud music and honking car horns typical of Tijuana; the air of imminent aggression and uncertainty is as thick as the dark beer I was drinking just moments ago. — Michael Hemmingson