Thursday, July 24, 2008

Soccer Hooliganism Invades America

Soccer hooliganism, often referred to as “the British disease” has finally come to America. It was brought by the supporters of the English team, West Ham United. Recently they played an exhibition game with the Columbus Crew in Columbus Ohio. West Ham fans wandered; as they would put it, the entire length of the stadium, and entered the section inhabited by the Crew’s most ardent supporters and started a fight. There was little security in the area, because soccer games in America are a family friendly experience: safe, fun, and cheap.

Whenever I tell someone that I’m a soccer fan, they usually say something like, “Isn’t that the game that causes all those riots?” It’s a good question, because the game of “football” (soccer) has been associated with violence since its beginnings in 13th century England. The term hooliganism originated in the early 60s. It has been linked with the televising of games and with the reclaiming of the game by the working class.

In the medieval times, football matches could involve hundreds of players and would be used as an excuse to settle old feuds, personal arguments, and land disputes, in what were essentially pitched battles (not so unlike those crazy Mayan Games where the losers had their heads cut off).

Now it is even organized. Rival hooligans will pick pre-arranged locations away from stadiums, in order to avoid police, to have their fight. Cleveland Browns and Pittsburg Steelers fans seem like attendees at the Ice Follies, compared to these guys. British fans hit the headlines the most, because of their tendency to spread their violence onto the international stage. Hooligans in the rest of the world, usually fight their battles at home, expressing local, regional, and sub-national rivalries. Most incidents occur at club-level matches, while supporters of the national team abroad are better behaved. The English are the obvious exception to this rule.

In the 70s, the hooliganism started to spread to other European countries, when a similar “proletarianisation” of the game evolved. The Marxist sociologists, figurationalists, social scientists, and empirically oriented researchers all have theories now, about the how and why.

What they have concluded is anybody's guess. But I can tell you, that it is clear that one form or another of disorderly behavior has occurred in every country in which soccer is played. So far it has been avoided in America. What we don’t need is for our youth to have British idiots teaching us how not to behave. I just hope that it is not a near-universal and seemingly inevitable accompaniment to the game.

Football violence often results from excessive alcohol consumption. Unfortunately, little research has focused specifically on the role of alcohol in football hooliganism. I’ll bet you 10 to 1 odds that the West Ham fans who wandered into the Crew side of the stadium were not drinking tea. Some investigators, however, have recently claimed that drinking can aggravate violence.

Do you think?

Ask any Cleveland Browns fan, who grew up going to that ‘Old” stadium on the lake. There were sections of the stadium that you just knew not to wander into. You knew that after the beer started flowing, there were going to be fights breaking out frequently. But the NFL has done an incredible job of stifling any of this kind of behavior in the recent past.

The British authorities are just now starting to reduce football hooliganism. It has largely been a reactive measure—increasing sophisticated policing, surveillance, and monitoring techniques, segregation of fans, and putting restrictions on alcohol. A friend of my wife and I, who lives in London and grew up a West Ham supporter, e-mailed us after we sent him a copy of an article about the Columbus incident. He said that, “Violence at matches was a big problem in the 70s and 80s and it still flares up when the teams travel abroad, and the idiots are away from the eagle eye of the local plod (that’s us in the Met). Its not tolerated here, a massive police presence including mounted officers used as cavalry, dogs, helicopters etc. sees to that.”

Now I keep mentioning the Cleveland Browns, because they are my “West Ham.” I grew up in Cleveland and have been a life long supporter. When you go to a game these days, the presence of security is so prevalent, that you can’t even light up a cigarette without security coming down on you before you take your second toke. The team actually hired the former head of The United States Secret Service, Lewis C. Merletti, as the person to keep tabs on every movement within the massive structure with a seating capacity of 73,200. There are so many security cameras, that nothing goes unnoticed. As Ross Benjamin said, “It became apparent very early that we needed more cameras to give us eyes where we couldn’t necessarily put people. It also helped us to clearly identify our primary security objectives: protect our fans, players and employees; reduce liability; help deter criminal activity; and apprehend and prosecute offenders.”

My wife and I attend MLS soccer games also and we enjoy the “family” type of environment. Please, keep West Ham as far away as possible. Bring Fulham Football Club back (they are the team the Crew plays often in exhibitions). They are a great team and have great fans, not only in London, but here in Ohio as well.

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