The president of the U. S. Soccer Federation inserted himself into the presidential race this week when he volunteered that a Donald Trump victory could kill hopes of bringing the World Cup back to American soil. “I think the world’s perception of the U.S. is affected by who is in the White House,” said Sunil Gulati. He then added that U.S. Soccer is unlikely even to bid for the tournament unless Hillary Clinton is elected in November. I’m no fan of Trump, but I found Gulati’s comments disingenuous at best—and hypocritical at worst. They came just days after the U.S. diminished its chances of getting a future World Cup when someone played the wrong national anthem at an unruly Copa America match between Mexico and Uruguay held in Arizona. Gulati has larger problems than Trump, including a pattern of bad behavior by Mexican supporters at U.S. matches that the soccer federation—and the soccer press—seems all too willing to overlook.
The United States is currently hosting 16 national teams from the Western Hemisphere in the Copa America. Fans watching Sunday night’s opening-round match on TV could see and hear the Mexican fans’ misbehavior, which included raining down beer on Uruguay’s players, chanting homophobic slogans, and fighting among themselves and with Uruguay supporters. Any similar fan behavior at, say, an NFL game, would be front page news and discussed for weeks on sports talk shows. Yet, many accounts of the Mexico-Uruguay game—including, for instance, the New York Times’ story—failed to mention the disruptions. On Fox Sports a team of analysts discussing the game briefly noted the raucous atmosphere, but actually complimented the Mexican fans for being “passionate.” Soccer website Goal.com was positively elated by the fracases, describing the flying beer and fan skirmishes as “a taste of what fans in the Americas have come to expect.” They were right about one thing—it wasn’t the first time that fans have acted out at international soccer matches played in the U.S.
Soccer hooliganism became widespread in Europe during the 1960s, when supporters began forming clubs whose main purpose was to spark chaos at games. The trend culminated in the infamous 1985 Heysel Stadium incident in Brussels, Belgium. Prior to the final match of that year’s European Cup tournament, thug supporters of the English soccer club Liverpool attacked fans of Italy’s Juventus. The chaos caused a stampede in which 39 people died. Ugly incidents persist, sometimes the result of racial and ethnic tensions. Last year, Italy and Croatia played before an empty stadium after Croatian fans were given a one-match ban for chanting racist slogans and hurling flares on the field during a match against Norway.
Though teams and countries have made successful efforts to eliminate or minimize the worst bad behavior, Mexico has seen an increase in violence surrounding soccer games. In January 2012, a young man was stabbed to death when violent fans clashed on a highway after a match. Six months earlier, a shootout interrupted a game in Torreon between the clubs Santos and Morelia. The violence has made its way into the United States. In 2013, a series of giant clashes took place in and around Las Vegas’s Sam Boyd Stadium during an exhibition match between Mexican rivals Club America and Chivas. Fans of Club America threw rocks and bottles at a bus with opposition supporters. According to the Las Vegas Sun, the match ended with “fans flooding the field throwing beer bottles at each other and fighting.”
Fans of the Mexican national team have been particularly disorderly in their matches against other national opponents, especially the U.S. A contributor to uproxx.com detailed her experiences attending a match between the U.S. and Mexico at the Rose Bowl in June 2011: “When Mexico scored their first goal, we were showered with beer cups, half full water and coke bottles. One US fan had to leave because he was hit with a glass bottle. Security at the Rose Bowl didn’t care. Didn’t give a sh*t.” Last summer, lawyer Michael Helfand described witnessing American players being showered with “batteries, coins, water bottles, beer and even bags of urine” during a game in Mexico City. He couldn’t imagine seeing behavior like this in the United States, he said, until he watched Mexico play Trinidad and Tobago in a Gold Cup game at Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium. Mexican supporters littered the field with bottles and cans as opposing players attempted to take corner kicks. At a Major League Baseball game, Helfand surmised, this kind of thing would bring ejections and even arrests.
Mexico has received little more than a slap on the wrist—a mere $35,000 fine from FIFA for homophobic chants by its national-team supporters. More disturbing, however, is what U.S. Soccer has done to discourage the Mexican fans’ terrible behavior—nothing. Games between the U.S. and Mexico played in the U.S. are extraordinarily lucrative for both federations. Gulati is even contemplating teaming with Mexico for a joint bid to host a future World Cup. He hoped that by staging the Copa America—a tournament traditionally held in South America—he could convince FIFA to bring the World Cup back to North America. He may have miscalculated. The president of the Uruguay Football Association, a powerful figure in world soccer who was at Sunday night’s game, said he regretted allowing the tournament to be played in the U.S. Even though this is an American tournament, he added, it was clearly “put together with Mexico in mind.”
The American soccer press has done its part to rationalize the bad behavior. Soccer analysts sometimes talk about the clashes at Mexico-U.S. games as if they are a rite of passage for fans. A writer for Goal.com even tried to “explain” that when Mexican fans doused U.S. supporters with beer, they didn’t really mean it as a provocation or an insult, they merely “launch their beverages in the air to celebrate” goals.
Gulati and U.S. Soccer are playing a dangerous game. Hooliganism rarely disappears by itself. Sooner or later, the kind of behavior exhibited by Mexico’s fans will lead to someone being seriously hurt or killed at a soccer match in the United States. Who will U.S. Soccer blame then? Trump?
Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images