Part Three: Are American Matches Safe from Hooliganism?
What about here in the states? Could the magnitude of the Heysel tragedy ever happen here? At present time, we would most likely say no. The reason why we say that is simply because of the professional security and organization we have here. Also, we have modern day facilities and complex mitigation plans to prevent things before they happen. However, that’s not to say that there can’t be room to have that same type of hostility and hatred anytime, anywhere. With what we see on the news today, there are plenty of new movements and violent protests unrelated to sports happening all over. Can that type of hostility spread to our game? Yes. In fact, in MLS, we see there are hostile supporter groups forming. We are also seeing embarrassing displays of conduct that one would expect from the NFL. In the opening season game, on live TV, we saw Atlanta United fans throw cups of beer onto the field. In Orlando, we heard a “Move b****, get off the pitch” chant from Orlando City supporters when a New York City FC player was injured. After the same game was over, a New York fan got into an argument with an Orlando City fan. A fight broke out between the New York and Orlando fan. An Orange County Sheriff’s Deputy tried to stop the fight, but he was attacked. The Orlando Police Lieutenant said several people got involved in the fight struck and choked the Deputy. Still another New York City FC fan was arrested after trying to stealing a seat from the stadium! Those incidents might not be the Heysel tragedy level, but it shows a disturbing trend of behavior that we do not want in our game in the United States. This brand new MLS season has already achieved a spike in fan violence and it must stop.
Think about it. Realistically, what do we truly know about the average fan around us besides the team they support? Not much these days. They could be friendly, law abiding, and kind people. On the other hand, they can be angry, bitter, and violent. Then, there are those out there that may be filled with hate and wish to spew their hatred on others little by little. It doesn’t take much to develop and start a mob mentality. So it’s a real mix of possible scenarios out there that we could face in the stands.
It’s not necessarily the large tragic events that would be an issue to us sports-wise. That would have to be a major terrorist attack. Instead, it’s the scenario of the slow, steady, trickle of hostility and violence that is of concern for us. That could lead to a couple scenarios. One would be the hostility that eventually spreads from supporter groups to the fan base and create an all out negative and hostile crowd in the end. Another could be like that of a constrictor snake. Hostility could slowly suffocate and eventually kill attendance to the point of a club being forced to fold. Either one of the scenarios would be detrimental to soccer and growth in America.
Supporters groups and loyal fans are the backbone of not only a club, but a league as well. Without them, many clubs and leagues would fare poorly or not even exist at all. The only question is what type of “vibe” would the supporters groups bring? A positive attitude of a home team supporters group would boost the spirit of their team and the fans. A non-hostile visiting supporters group would simply be either accepted by the fans, ignored, or at most teased a bit. It would be nothing really major that would cause concern, but the plus would be added attendance. Some support groups even trade scarves as a sign of friendship and peace. Then again, supporters groups from either side could bring a negative attitude into the stadium. ID hiding/intimidating “supporter group wear,” foul language usage and inappropriate chants are not what one wants to experience at a public event. That would be more like rioting protesters than a true supporter group.
One of the supporters groups we are very familiar with is known as “Flight 19.” They are the supporters group for the Fort Lauderdale Strikers of the NASL. Currently, the Strikers status is in limbo, but just the same, Flight 19 deserves recognition for their two sections from their Code of Conduct:
Section 3. Members shall familiarize themselves with and abide by all applicable stadium rules and regulations when attending games as a spectator.
Section 4. Racism, negative prejudice, violence and offensive behavior are prohibited by the Club. Participation in these activities will result in disciplinary action.
That is the type of conduct supporters groups need to keep in mind. Those rules are what we as fans should be striving to match. The conduct code is model to what supporters should strive to achieve.
In our nation, there are leagues that have smaller operations, they are different. We have a flourishing nationwide grassroots, soccer movement. We are a community. We know each other. We are friends and neighbors. What is great is that we can have close relationships with not only with fans, but with the teams, the players, and the owners as well. That is genuine love for the and advancement of soccer.
So when we go to our local team games we can ask ourselves a couple of questions. Does our team fan base project the energetic feel of fun and unity or is it the hostile and negative spirit of a protest? Are fans walking in with whole families in team colors or are there hostile groups keeping families from wanting to attend? That is where lines have to be drawn. Team ownership, league officials, local law enforcement and politicians could all work in conjunction to keep our standards intact and acceptable. After all, of those officials mentioned, many of them as well as their friends and families may be in attendance. We need to keep in mind that those official could shut down a team with one incident. Where there is always room for positive improvement, there could also be room for negativity.
Unfortunately, even in our smaller American leagues, there are already signs of hostile supporters groups developing. For example, in the NPSL, there is a very successful team with a strong fan base and great attendance. However, they also have a militant supporters group that frequently use ‘intimidating supporter group gear.” Sometimes, they wear identification masking clothing similar to that of the Belgrade Derby, use foul language freely, and their pregame rallies seem more like a protest rallies. Don’t become confused, it’s great to have zealous fan support, but there should be a line drawn. If one is at a game for a public entertainment and there are minors and parents present, it should be family rated entertainment. After all, those parents are raising and nurturing a new generation of fans. Families, the team, and the league should be respected if the community still wants their team. As fans of our American soccer game, we should run under a higher standard, “honor code.” This doesn’t just mean our own personal code of conduct, but if we see inappropriate activity, it should be reported to security and to team representatives immediately. In a sense to stop the fire before it spreads.
So, let’s think about what we’ve learned. Like hurricanes, hooliganism is and has been a deadly and destructive force with a track record of tragedy. We know the world in general is getting more colder and hostile. With that said, that means fan bases and supporters groups have higher potential for hostility and violence. We see it in many levels of soccer all over the world today. As fans, we have a duty to not only enjoy the game and support our teams and leagues, but to help protect them. How? Two words: conduct and responsibility. The question is here in the USA, are we going to be fans that will help build or break our teams and leagues? That’s a question that every soccer fan should ask themselves before attending a game in our country.
This is part three of a three part series by Lew Tasso and Aidan Reagh.