The Wembley Experience: Lessons About Hooliginism for MLS
My experience at Wembley Stadium the other night for the US-England game was outstanding. Not only because of the atmosphere and enthusiasm around international football at England’s National Stadium and throughout London (Although I will point out that this visit reinforced a long held belief of mine having visited both cities on multiple occasions that Londoners are much ruder and more condescending than Parisians, but that people from England outside of London are simply more personable) but because of what I discovered about English football. As has been mentioned in a previous post many of the English fans I spoke to were from outside London and supported lower league sides. Many said that they find the Premier League dull and predictable while being curious about MLS, especially the play of the British players who used to play football in England. (I was asked specific questions about Rohan Ricketts, Terry Cooke and Ronnie O’Brien) This stands in direct contrast to the legions of American fans who flock to the Premier League and spend time ridiculing their own domestic league.
As has been discussed on the American Soccer Show, Major League Soccer Talk and around the web the past few weeks MLS has a developing problem with controlling fan behavior. In my conversations with English fans I attempted to get a sense of how supporters of the clubs in the Coca Cola Championship, League One and League Two deal with the problems. The answers I got were fascinating. As Dougie Brimson pointed out in our interview with him a few weeks back, self policing is the key. If any fan attempts to create a violent atmosphere or a “showdown” with supporters of other clubs they are simply ostracized or thrown out of the supporters groups. In addition, supporters work with local police and with opposing clubs and their supporters groups to head off any problems before they become issues. Acknowledgment is a key to dealing with problems as I have been repeatedly told.
This was demonstrated to me as on a few separate occasions English fans did try and start unsolicited taunting of me or other US supporters only to be called off by another England supporter or to stop when they saw groups of four or five police officers nearby both before and after the match. The police presence was impressive but to me even more impressive was the maturity of some English fans to tell their fellow supporters to chill out when they saw me sporing a US jacket and scarf. That’s not to say I wasn’t taunted often or that some fans were trying to provoke a reaction out of me. For example, when I walked on the train at Queens Park Station to go to Paddington to switch to the Heathrow Express, four English fans greeted me with chants of “you are gay, you are gay” chanted like U-S-A, U-S-A. I did not react but did see others on the train sort of stare down the four young, drunk looking fans and I simply ignored them.
But as I said acknowledgment is part of solving the problem. This past week we had arguably the worst incident of fan behavior in the thirteen year history of MLS. As our friends at the MLS Rumors site have discussed in the conversation they have been leading for several weeks now, it is important to recognize and confront these incidents as they occur. When we discussed Toronto FC a few weeks back we saw somewhat militant but intelligent responses. It was obvious from some of the responses and my subsequent conversations that many TFC supporters take the situation seriously and are attempting to deal with it. However, anything that has gone on in Toronto pales in comparison with the events in Columbus this past weekend.
What’s even more disturbing about the situation in Columbus is that little accountability has been demonstrated by supporters of the Crew. When we discussed TFC a few weeks back, ironically enough a few comments were left by Columbus fans claiming that the behavior of TFC supporters who came to Ohio for the MLS opener had created the environment where many Crew fans were unwilling to go to the subsequent matches. Now we have learned if anything it is the behavior of the Crew’s own supporters and the lack of willingness of their supporters groups to police their own that have gotten us to this position.
So defensive about the situation are some Crew supporters that they have even threatened to go after the sponsors of the MLS Rumors site which broke the story. I ask those particular Crew supporters, Why stop there? Why not go after the Boston Globe, the Washington Post, WBNS TV, You Tube and the MLS itself, among others for acknowledging and confronting the situation in Columbus. If you are so convinced your fans are being thrown under the bus why not boycott any media outlet that doesn’t rubber stamp your agenda of sweeping these issues under the rug. From my vantage point the response of some in Columbus is simply nothing less than cowardly and insulting.
The incidents of racism were so ugly in Columbus on Saturday night that they do not bear repeating. They have cast MLS in a negative light in the mainstream media, the type of situation we had hoped to avoid and why specifically I wrote the piece I did several weeks back. The irony once again is that it was a few Crew supporters that claimed I was not tough enough on Toronto FC. But it is Columbus who now must do something about this situation before others are forced to take action against them.
One thing I have learned from speaking with Dougie Brimson and my experiences at Wembley is that while these sorts of incidents are common place still England, they are dealt with quickly and firmly be it by law enforcement or by supporters groups. If we don’t develop the same culture of self policing and honesty about these incidents here in the US we are doomed to a consistent repeat of the sort of ugly incidents that have engulfed so many football leagues throughout the globe in the not so distant past.