Friday, February 3, 2012

Friday Footnotes

Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times
If you're a soccer fan you probably have come across this situation before. A soccer-related event occurs and it ends up making it onto the national news or is featured predominantly in the first ten minutes of Sportscenter. Whether it be a big victory by the USMNT/USWNT, a crazy goal (scorpion kick anyone), or a big name signing coming to MLS. The news hits the airwaves and the next day your non-soccer friends come up to you asking, "did you hear about the <insert soccer-related event here>" in an attempt to seem in-tune with the sport. Such was the case on Wednesday when news of the stadium tragedy in Egypt started making its way through traditional and social media networks. Thursday morning rolled around and of course I was approached by people asking if I had heard about what had happened in Egypt and what I thought about it.

If you didn't hear the story two of the top teams in Egypt played a match in Port Said where the top ranked team suffered a rare 3-1 defeat and the fans erupted in celebration. Thousands of fans poured out of the stands and onto the field as the police did very little to stop the crowd. The issue came when a small number of home fans started to attack the opposing fans. People made their way to the nearest exit to avoid the fighting and found the gate to be locked. As the crowd continued to surge out of the stadium those trapped closest to the locked gate were crushed and killed in what was described as "layers of bodies". A much smaller number of fans were injured or killed from the actual fighting between fans, but the bulk of the 74 deaths came from crushing of fans in the exit tunnel.

It was interesting to see how the media reported on the event, most labeling it as a "soccer riot" with far fewer calling it a "stadium tragedy". If the exit gate hadn't been locked then there is a pretty good chance that people outside of Egypt wouldn't have even known the match took place. How many times have you watched a college football game in the US where the lower ranked home team defeats the higher ranked visitors? As the final seconds tick off the clock the fans push towards the sidelines, jump out of the stands, and rush the field. Imagine if those same fans then tried to rapidly exit the field and found a gate locked much like the situation in Egypt and fans were crushed to death; would they call it a "football riot"?

Soccer is unique in the way it handles opposing fans; the majority of away spectators are in a dedicated section of the stadium. In Europe the opposing fans are typically asked to arrive at the stadium through a specific entrance and to wait up to one hour in the stands before exiting after the match. Similar systems exist in the US for MLS, but the distance between teams usually keeps the number of away fans to a minimum. In all the other US professional sports the fans are intermingled with one another with the exception of some college sports. Instead of having to deal with a mass exodus of opposing fan groups from the stadium at the same time, professional sports in the US leave it up to the individuals to work out their differences. I can't tell you how many times I have been to a baseball game and seen a fight breakout between opposing fans in the stands, it's almost a given. Sometimes the fighting happens in the parking lots after the games; like the beating that happened in Los Angeles last year between Dodgers and Giants fans that made the news (and was not labeled as a "baseball riot"). On rare occasions sports riots do happen in North America, ironically it is usually after a team wins a championship and the fans decide to burn their own town to the ground. Most recently Vancouver was the site of riots following the Canucks losing the Stanley Cup to the Boston Bruins. Disappointed Vancouver fans intermingled with the anarchist-types that are always looking for a fight and a riot broke out. With all the tear gas, water hoses, and arrests I don't remember any news organization specifically labeling it as a "hockey riot" in Vancouver.

The bottom line is that what happened in Egypt isn't isolated to that country or to soccer in general. The loss of life at any sporting event is a horrible tragedy, one which could happen anywhere with any sport. The fact that it occurred following a soccer match makes it seem even more foreign to those in the US. The American mentality of, "oh that couldn't happen here", is short-sighted because it does happen in this country. Thousands of fans crowd onto the field or rush out of the stands dozens of times during any college football season; we're just one locked gate away from the tragedy repeating itself here.

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