Hope, disappointment loom over Euro, Copa America weekend


copa-america-euro-2016This was supposed to be the weekend of soccer.

With the European Championship kicking off and the Copa America Centenario entering the business side of the tournament, this weekend had the promise of delivering a rare perfect viewing experience.

On the pitch it delivered. Friday saw a close 2-1 victory for France followed by a tense battle between Chile and Bolivia. Then the whole soccer world bowed to the maestro that is Lionel Messi, who put three goals past Panama in under 20 minutes. Moving scenes from Gareth Bale and Wales to Costa Rica shocking Colombia late on Saturday night provided end-to-end excitement keeping supporters up at pubs and in the stands at all hours of the night. Even the rare referee cramp and the bizarre white spray that took fifteen minutes to coat in Philadelphia brought some level of humor to the United States- Paraguay tie.

Yet for as much as these matches and events provided everything that a football supporter could want, they were almost all cancelled out by disturbing scenes in Marseille. With Russian and English hooligans ravaging the streets of France and causing chaos for two days footballs eyes turned away from the pitch and back to the same tired antics.

The question is: just how do we match up our love and excitement for the beautiful game against some of the ugly attitudes that it brings out? How can we enjoy the work of the likes of Messi, Bale, Dier, and Schweinsteiger while stomaching the nonsense of men and women who choose to act like petulant children? Should one even cancel out the other?

Although soccer is not the only sport that has issues with rioting and social-political infighting, it is by far the most prominent. Every Saturday and Sunday the world gets to witness grown men and women fighting for reasons that don’t appear to be even clear to themselves. Hating someone that one does not know simply because they wear a different color or come from a different country seems foolish and a waste of time.

Now there will be those that say these comments are irrelevant coming from an American. There may be some truth to it. Given that our country is still a relative newbie to the international game and our knowledge of the nuances of every individual derby perhaps we might not know who started what. Still catching up on my background of Conference level football in England.

But having watched enough matches between the United States and Mexico there is something that yours truly has learned through the years: that no amount of fighting in the stands is going to make a bit of a difference to the conditions off of it. Illicit trafficking of slaves, drugs, and women are still issues. As is the proliferation of light and heavy automatic weapons from the United States into Mexico. For as many nasty words and broken bottles have been thrown through the years between the two rivals because of the inherent problems the two have little has changed off of the pitch. In other words: hooligans with nationalist tendencies do not prove squat.

So why do the actions of these children bother us? Why can’t we watch our matches and ignore the behavior of some? First, because they affect our safety. Chances are some of those individuals that were shown on camera in Marseilles were there to enjoy the match. Yet because some group of individuals wanted to pick a fight with another group they became victims of the situation. A person should never have to fear for their safety when going to a soccer match or watching it at a pub or bar.

Second, and this is mostly an issue here in the United States, it becomes tiresome and a bit tedious explaining hooligan behavior to non-fans of the game. There is nothing worse than spending time on a sports talk show or a podcast after a game with a fantastic finish like Russia-England trying to tell people why people were brawling in the street in France. It is a behavior that has nothing to do with the game on the pitch and does not explain the social-political atmosphere around a team. But because hooligans are kewl and have done enough infamous acts around soccer matches, the game has the misfortune of being identified with them.

Is it possible to stem the tide of hooliganism and to restore some of the luster to the game? Yes, but it is going to require effort from both soccer officials, players, and supporters themselves. Not every supporter who goes to a match gets inebriated beyond reproach and chooses to make a scene. There are those that can go to a football match and not threaten the lives of other people.

These are the individuals that have to work with officials to root out the malcontents. Supporters and football officials may not agree on everything but hooliganism is an issue that the two can work together on to eliminate. Hooligans do nothing to help the image of sane-minded supporters and are a scourge to football officials. Working together they can assure that these individuals no longer have match access, are ostracized among supporter circles, and are shamed for not being adults.

A little bit of levelheadedness would also help. Stop calling matches wars, battles, or using terminology like the Group of Death. These are football games not wars and yes while nerves can get tense on the pitch that’s no excuse for allowing it to escalate off of the pitch. Football teams and in particular national teams are as much to blame for artificially ratcheting up the anticipation for a match.

Empty matches might also need to take place. That may be a nightmare scenario to tournament organizers more interested in lining their pockets but if their participants cannot control their fans it becomes a much more serious security issue. Although it may sound a bit sexist, Turkey’s alternative of just allowing mothers and children into games may be another alternative.

In time perhaps the actions of those off of the pitch will not sully the highlights in the events on the pitch. But until supporters and officials take the problem seriously tournaments like the Copa America and Euros will be marked not by great goals and saves but by the acts of hooliganism and the violence that surrounds.


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