Oct 15, 2007

MLS Hooliganism? We Should Be So Lucky.

Fox Sports' Nick Webster this morning wrote about how soccer hooliganism "isn't that far from kicking off in this country" (that would be the U.S.). This is not just any form of hooliganism, mind you, but the most sinister form that literally caused death and destruction in the 1980s.

Uh, sure Nick. Let's hurry up and alert the authorities to those drunken, violent, unemployed louts that are about to descend on MLS stadia to start brawls and destroy property. Wait a tick, you didn't actually provide any timing for your prediction. Are we talking next week's MLS playoffs? Next season? Next decade? With a threat this serious, you may have wanted to investigate that.

All joking aside, I would love to see that level of interest in MLS. Not the type that brings to mind Brussels circa May 1985, but a passionate fan base that sings, chants, waves flags...maybe even lights flares on occasion. Yes, I view these two scenarios as mutually exclusive and I'll explain why: First of all, the fatalities we saw in the 1980s were more due to hazardous crowd control in the stadiums themselves (standing room, fences that prevented overflow crowds from spilling onto the field, not to mention woeful mismanagement and poorly- or ill-trained security) than actual fan violence. Yes, some of these thugs were (lightly) armed (by U.S. standards, meaning they had no guns) and I don't deny that their behavior contributed to unsafe conditions. But most of the fatalities could have been prevented with better facilities, security, and management thereof. The very worst of these events in Britain, the 1989 Hillsborough disaster that killed 96 Liverpool fans, was in fact solely due to the latter phenomena. More on Hillsborough here and here.

Suffice it to say, those conditions no longer exist in Western Europe and never existed in the U.S. in the first place. Fans still get drunk and fight each other, but they do that in the U.S. as well. Nowadays the most violent have been priced out of the stadiums anyway.

But the more important reason "hooliganism" will not happen in MLS is the lack of interest. Yes, most MLS teams have European-style fan clubs and many of them (including Red Bulls' own Empire Supporters Club) do an excellent job making themselves heard during games. But they still represent a minority of fans in the stadium--even with an average attendance of 15,000, as is the case with the New York franchise.

Which is a shame. Far from being violent, drunk and unemployed, these guys and girls are passionate and knowledgeable about the sport and productive members of society. Many are professionals. Many are students. None are a threat to security. Okay, so most of them are still drunk and/or stoned. Big deal. (Read a recent New York Observer piece on ESC here).

Point is, far from fearing them, MLS needs more of these "hooligans." I say bring 'em on.


  1. I agree that having "hooligans" will defiantly show that the MLS has grown amongst the masses. I would love for it to happen (growth of the MLS) but i doubt that it will be happening anytime soon.
    I remember reading a WSJ (i think) article about the fans that compose the Barra Brava of DC United. The only thing that they have close to being a barra brava is the barra part, cause there is nothing tough about them. I have had the pleasure of going to games in Argentina and Uruguay as well as personally meeting leaders of the barra brava of CA Peñarol and these guys would be more clients of the DC Barra Brava than supporters. One of the DC leaders, if i am not mistaken, is a lawyer...so don't expect too many harsh chants or fireworks (althought in their last game, they used a smoke flare!).
    Barra bravas are part of the soccer world, but don't expect them to catch on in the USA...look at the followers of top USA sports, all you get are tailgate parties. Each country adapts to sports in certain ways and i think that the american way is just to chant "we will rock you". I dont think that there is a need for hardcore supporters, sports are made for entertainment and american sports are the examples to be followed.

  2. I'm going to have to respectfully disagree with the previous comment. Mainly on these grounds: I believe that soccer will never become a "mainstream" sport for the adult fans in this country, and that this is a very good thing.

    Let's face it, nothing is going to displace MLB, the NFL, the NBA or especially college football as the culturally rooted "American" sports. Tailgaiting and sitting quietly in your seat while listening to "Start me Up" and that "Charge" diddy is all part of that scene.

    Soccer, in my mind, is not only important as an alternative sporting experience, but also as an alternative fan experience. If you're tired of clapping your hands to Jock Jams, then perhaps you'd be into chanting and singing, waving flags, or learning how to curse in Spanish. Every once in a while, you might even get an idiot who'll punch a DC United fan in the face.

    It's all part of my theory of the postive aspects of keeping soccer out of the mainstream. There are plenty of people in this country, and I dream of a day, maybe 20 years in the future, where a thriving, 20-team MLS consistently sells out 25,000 seat stadiums, each with 5,000 or so hardcore chanters and singers spreading their enthusiasm to the casual fans. MLS does not need to overtake any of the "American" sports to acheive this.

    Think of soccer as Sushi. Chances are your average joe-blow midwesterner is not going to be adding it as a diet staple, but you can still get it almost anywhere (even in my po-dunk midwestern hometown). Yet the minute you see it at McDonald's, something has gone horribly wrong.

  3. - I think soccer is a mainstream sport in america. mls certainly isnt and wont be until the players and their ability on the pitch improve, but european leagues, world cup and champions league ratings are good here. this talk by sports columnist about how soccer isnt popular and never will be is simple and basic ignorance. Theres a lot more soccer fans out there than you'd think, not to mention the fact that america is made up of tons of people from many different nations...most of them soccer loving nations. they bring their culture with them and soccer is a big part of that culture.

    hooliganism: i think the main reason we dont get real hooliganism has more to do with distance between fans/teams/stadiums/cities. with america were talking 3,793,079 square miles. england...50,346 square miles. america is huge compared to england. new york alone is 54,556. its just different overseas. sure we get rivalries between neighboring cities, but what wont happen for example are large groups of thirsty houston dynamo fans looking for a drink suddenly walking into a dc united bar/pub. paths just dont cross like that here. Its just seems that in england the entire country is one big local derby.

    To be honest i think college sports is the closest thing we got to that kind of special soccer atmosphere. After that you have to wait until NFL/NBA/MLB playoffs.

    I do agree that hooliganism, in a catch 22 kinda way, would be a good thing. its like sacrificing certain things for the greater good. the fun/loud/slightly unpredictable, but still pretty harmless hooligan would definitely be a good thing.

    p.s. is it not the coolest thing ever when flares are lit thrown out on the field in a neutral/safe area and the entire stadium looks completely smothered in smoke...and then they still allow play to continue. soccer is the best.

  4. i never took into consideration the distances, which seems to be a relavant point in the USA. however Brazil is a sizable country...
    i also thought that the parallel between soccer and sushi is well put. but i would love to see "sushi at mcddonalds", i would even consider playing in the playpen (barra brava) if soccer ever becomes that popular, because to me there is nothing more enjoyable than cursing your rivals after a long week at the office!
    it is wonderful to see such instightful point of views about something so controversial.

  5. Third quarter, second meeting of the season at a Chargers-Raiders game when the teams are competing for a play-off position is no tail gate party. Too much beer, too many atagonistic postures, and violence can certainly ensue- I've seen it, I've been caught up in it. The phenomenon is exclusive to international (as opposed to American) football.

  6. should read "the phenomenon is NOT exclusive to international (as opposed to American) football".

  7. Hooliganism in the USA can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on what you define 'hooligans' as. If these are simply defined as unorganised, drunked revellers then this would probably be healthy for the sport and keep it competitive and make it an enjoyable spectacle for travelling fans... However, if more organised groups such as the english firms like the MIGs or watever form, which are dedicated to violence regardless of the match where fighting becomes more important than football, then the sport will suffer both in the media and in terms of viewers. Hopefully, the USA wil b prepared for this type of culture developing by taking example from our tackling of the problem and quelling it to some extent.