In October 2001, the national football teams of France and Algeria faced off in a long-awaited, and (at least in principle) “friendly” international game at the Stade de France in Paris. The event was trumpeted as an opportunity for reconciliation, a symbolic end to the conflict between the two countries, and an opportunity for a French nation increasingly shaped by it’s Algerian immigrant population to find peace within itself. But from the beginning, the match was something else: the stadium was packed with fans of the Algerian team, most of them French citizens of Algerian background. Many booed and whistled not just at the French national team (sparing only Zinedine Zidane), but also — loudly — at the French national anthem.
On the field, France dominated the game, and with the score at 4-1 in the second half, an Algeria fan named Sophia Benlemmane decided she couldn’t let her team lose. She stormed onto the field, holding an Algerian flag. Soon others followed, and within minutes the Stade de France was in the midst of a full-scale pitch invasion. French officials in the stands — including Prime Minister Lionel Jospin — were pelted with bottles, batteries, and coins. The teams were huddled off the field — the French player Lilian Thuram cursing at the fans who had stormed the field, declaring that they were acting stupidly and would confirm all the stereotypes people had of them. The game was stopped, and a football match was rapidly transformed into a national parable.
Soon afterwards, far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen held a press conference in front of the Stade de France. Pointing to it as a place where France’s national anthem had been booed, he declared that he was running for president, largely on a platform that promised to curtail immigration and respond to the threats posed to the country’s national identity by immigrants. For many conservatives, and indeed for many on different sides of the political spectrum, the France-Algeria game had crystallized a set of powerful fears: that Algerians and their children, and more broadly Muslims as a group, were taking over the country, showed no respect for national symbols, and were willing to behave as if they were in their own territory without regards to the laws of the Republic. Many Algerians lamented the behavior of the small group of young people who had taken to the field — who were amongst a much larger group of fans, they insisted, who were just interested in enjoying the game and rooting peacefully for their side. Commentators on the left, including Thuram, also criticized those who stormed the field, but sought to channel the discussion towards the broader social problems of inclusion and marginalization that had driven them to such an act.
I kept thinking about this incident — which I describe in more detail my book Soccer Empire — in the last days as I’ve followed the debates surrounding the Gold Cup final between the U.S. and Mexico that took place on Saturday night. To be sure, the circumstances are very different: Algerians in France have a very different history than Mexicans in the U.S., of course. And football in France is something entirely different than football in the U.S. At the same time, however, there are things about the lurking unease being expressed right now among U.S. fans — including Tim Howard’s criticism of the post-match ceremony taking place in Spanish, and a disturbing account I read this morning by one die-hard U.S. fan, Russell Jordan the head of the Davis, California chapter of the “American Outlaws” fan group, about harassment and disorganization at the Rose Bowl — that remind me a bit of the debates I’ve followed over the years in France.
Jordan’s account describes a situation in which an organized group of U.S. fans were, at times, pelted with bottles, and were surprised to find that rather than having a dedicated area of the stadium were mixed in with fans of the Mexico team. It also describes extremely limited security that seems to have left U.S. fans vulnerable. Hopefully this account will inspire others who were at the game to describe their own experiences, since it would be important to know how widespread such conflicts were. Soccer writer Allicia Ratterree, who was at the match, offers a very different account of the game, describing a little taunting going both directions between fans but a largely safe and congenial event. When I attended a Gold Cup match a few weeks ago in Charlotte, where fans of Mexico, Salvador, Costa Rica and Cuba mixed with those just there to watch a game of international football, I found the atmosphere exuberant and congenial, and friends who went to RFK later had a similar experience — though neither of those events involved a U.S. vs. Mexico match.
I live in Durham and teach at Duke, so I’m pretty familiar with intense and sometimes loathsome fan behavior. I went to the University of Michigan, and witnessed a number of basketball riots, and when was at MSU when a fan of a visiting team was brutally beaten in the streets of East Lansing. And I’ve attended matches in Europe, notably at Paris Saint-Germain, whose fans are notorious and find themselves heavily policed, with away fans penned into a sliver of space in the stadium surrounded by nets and a massive orange fence with spikes at the top of it, protected by lines of police. Which is to say that I’ve seen my share of unpleasant and at times violent fan behavior, and have no sympathy for it. I believe people should be able to go watch a sports match without being hit in the head by bottles, or spat upon.
The bad behavior of certain fans — who are always a minority — can be interpreted in many different ways. The Duke-UNC rivalry has a politics to it, of course — Duke is a private school, most of it’s students from outside North Carolina, while UNC is a larger public university — but those politics are largely subsumed and channeled into various sets of stereotypes and chants. I’ve seen UNC fans who somehow infiltrated the Cameron Crazies bleachers, and I’ve seen a fully-clad Duke fan wandering through the intersection of Franklin and Columbia streets the night of a UNC victory over Duke, in the midst of bonfires, taunting the opposing fans. I’ve never seen any physical violence, though.
What prevents the verbally rude and nasty behavior of fans we tend to accept from skidding into something worse? A combination of security and internal social control. That is one reason why the wise management of football matches in Europe depends on giving organized fan groups a dedicated space of their own, concentrated in one part of the stadium. This has two advantages — it localizes the most intense fans, and it also provides an opportunity for those groups to police themselves. Since fan groups depend on local clubs to give them access to parts of the stadium, and local clubs can refuse them that access or ban certain fans from coming, there’s an external pressure to keep things within the bounds of the acceptable.
In Pasadena on Saturday, there clearly had been no provision for the grouping of fans in particular areas of the stadium, which is one of the things that Jordan complains about. There’s a big question to be asked about why that wasn’t the case — especially since the American Outlaws group seems to have believed they had purchased tickets in a an area reserved for U.S. fans. (At the 2009 final of the Gold Cup, I remember seeing a section of the stadium packed with U.S. fans, so I assume that at times the ticketing has worked differently). But there’s also questions about why there wasn’t more security in general, since in most U.S. sports events people would be ejected pretty fast if they started throwing things. We need to get a better picture of how the whole event was managed, and the organizers of future events need to think hard — and under scrutiny — about how to improve the experience next time around.
This would all be serious enough if it were just a question of bad experiences among fans at a game. But there’s a bigger issue here: all this is unavoidably and inherently political, because of the ways in which it can all be read as a parable. It’s easy for the behavior of some Mexican fans, and the experiences of some U.S. fans, starts to stand in for a much larger set of issues. As was the case in France in 2001, there is clearly a feeling among many who have responded to this situation that there is something unfair about the fact that U.S. fans, and the U.S. team, felt like they were playing an away game in Pasadena.These feelings are compounded by the rather humiliating defeat suffered on the field itself — unlike the Algerians in 2001, the Mexican team took care of business on the field, leaving U.S. fans really demoralized, and some of what has gone on since then is obviously driven by the hurt and disappointment of that experience.
But the event is obviously a perfect opportunity for conservative and nativist commentators, who can easily argue that it proves the immigrants are taking over our society, and show no respect for us or our traditions. That is what happened in France in 2001. It is unlikely to happen in the same way here, simply because most people in the U.S. don’t really know what the Gold Cup is or what happened last Saturday, so it’s symbolic power is attenuated. The Rose Bowl is a little bit sacred, of course — it’s where the U.S. Women’s team won the World Cup in 1999 — but not quite in the same was as the Stade de France. It’s hard to imagine a U.S. politician giving a press conference in front of the Rose Bowl about the need to curb immigration — though, then again, who knows?
Some of this is also about the odd loneliness of the U.S. fan. Even if U.S. fans had been given a dedicated area in the stadium, they would have experienced the game as an away game — it might not have been as bad as being PSG fans in Marseille, but it would have been something along those lines. The reason that is so frustrating, of course, is that it has as much to do with the lack of a U.S. fan base as with the involvement of Mexico fans. After all, there is no real reason why there couldn’t be more U.S. fans at a Gold Cup final, except that there aren’t enough people who made the decision to buy tickets and go.
Part of what’s also going on here is simply a clash of sports cultures. Football games in Mexico, Latin America, Europe, Africa, and well pretty much everywhere are incredibly intense affairs, and frequently small groups of fans who go too far. The techniques for managing this are, of course, not always successful. And that fact tempers attendance: many of my French friends looked at me in disbelief when I told them I went to a PSG match, something they would never consider doing out of fear of ending up in a riot. In the U.S., soccer fandom is something entirely different: MLS games are pretty pleasant overall — more so than many a college basketball of football game — and of course the demographics of the game are different too. Those different expectations and habits don’t run up against each other that often — but during the Gold Cup they definitely do.
As this debate continues, it’s vital to allow things to remain complicated and avoid an easy story. (This is something Maxi Rodriguez has also emphasized in an recent piece, along with this this post at the FBM blog.) It is the responsibility of any organization that oversees large sporting events to guarantee security to those who attend. Fans who throw things and hurt other people should, in any game anywhere, be expelled from the stadium and possibly arrested. And the long experience of fan conflict in Europe suggests some relatively effective techniques: making sure that fan organizations have access to dedicated areas of the stadium, enter separately, and that zones of contact between fan groups have enough security to prevent incidents.
We’ll be better off, however, if this doesn’t become an easy parable. There is nothing wrong with fans of Mexico — whether they are U.S. citizens, Mexican citizens, or just big fans of Chicharito — going to root for their team. There is nothing wrong with fans of the U.S. rooting for theirs. In the end, if there are more Mexico fans at the Gold Cup final than U.S. fans, that’s nobody’s fault — except for the U.S. fans who weren’t there.