If you ask an average American what words he or she associates with soccer, chances are that the first one uttered will be ‘hooligans.’
It’s a word that has long tarnished mainstream America’s view of the sport, but it’s always been perceived as “The English Disease.” That perception, however, will change if incidents such as the one at the Columbus Crew against West Ham friendly continue to spiral out of control across this country.
For me, it feels like deja vu. When the United States hosted the World Cup in 1994, many Americans breathed a sigh of relief that England didn’t qualify for the tournament. I was one of them. For the game to flourish in the States, the last thing the country needed was hooligans running through the streets.
Then and now, I still believe that the issue isn’t so much the hooligans but it’s the way they’re policed. Sure, there are plenty of idiots drunken on causing aggro whether they’re Englishmen or Americans. You’re never going to rid the world of those imbeciles, but what you can do is control it and reduce the chances of it happening within soccer stadiums.
In the late 1980′s and early 1990′s, I was extremely worried about the ability of the police and security in the United States to handle the onslaught of English football hooligans. Living in the United States, I had been to countless international and club matches in South Florida and saw first-hand how inept the police officers and security guards were.
I was at the Arsenal against Independiente friendly in Miami in 1989 when security had no idea how to handle a few hundred Gunners fans that had traveled from England. The armed police officers, presumably brainwashed by images of rioting English fans on U.S. TV, were poised to attack. They hassled the supporters at every opportunity even though all the fans were doing was standing up and singing to support their team. If the cops had such a difficult time handling a few hundred fans, imagine how inept they would be when they were faced with tens of thousands of supporters.
Other instances stick in my mind such as the first few home games for the Miami Fusion where armed police officers routinely went into the stands and created mayhem by brandishing their weapons. Then there was the away game I attended with Fusion supporters in Tampa where a Tampa policeman, obviously high on power, started arresting Miami fans inside the stadium because they were standing in the aisle instead of behind their seats. Conveniently, the police were nowhere to be seen after the game when a pack of ten Tampa fans ambushed us while we were exiting the stadium.
What it comes down to is poorly trained security officers who have no idea how to handle soccer fans. These are people who are not used to soccer culture and feel threatened by spectators who don’t behave like “normal” American sports fans.
By reading some of the accounts from the West Ham against Columbus game, it doesn’t sound like many of the neanderthals who disguise themselves as security guards have learned much since my first experiences with them from the late 1980′s. That needs to change and it’s something that the British police would be more than happy to teach the Americans.