By Michael Lewis - NEW YORK, NY (Feb 16, 2010) USSoccerPlayers -- Years ago, someone said that wed know when soccer really made it in the United States when there would be a full-fledged riot at a game. Well, that's certainly a perverse and ugly way to look at the development of the beautiful game in this or any country.
Yet, we already have experienced a riot, one that made headlines at an international tournament, one that saw fans make a pitch invasion in the waning minutes, one that had almost three dozen people arrested and one, fortunately, that had no deaths, although one person was hospitalized.
Friday is the 10th anniversary of what many observers claim is the worst modern fan disturbance in American soccer history. The CONCACAF Gold Cup quarterfinal match between Peru and Honduras ended in fan violence in the final minute at the Orange Bowl in Miami. Peru was leading at the time, 5-3.
OK, just what defines a soccer riot? Good question.
- Does it take tear gas?
- Does it take police action?
- Does it take hundreds of arrests?
- Do business have to be destroyed?
- Does it take injuries?
It probably depends on one's perspective.
Compared to the rest of the World in terms of soccer violence, it was a minor disturbance, a blip on the Richter riot scale. Yet, it was bad as it has gotten in the United States.
I should know. I was at the Orange Bowl for a Gold Cup quarterfinal doubleheader on Feb. 19, 2000. In the first match, the U.S. was eliminated by Colombia via penalty kicks after the Americans lost the lead (by the way, there was no fan violence). Most of the American media contingent, wanting to beat the traffic back to their hotels, left before the second game was finished.
Outside of the South Florida media, Grahame Jones of the Los Angeles Times and yours truly were the only Americans left. We just wanted to watch soccer. What we had wound up witnessing was something surreal and scenes that I hope I never will see again, especially in person.
At the time, I wrote that it was "the most embarrassing incident" in the Gold Cup, which saw one of the ugliest fan disturbances in American soccer history.
As it turned out, the encounter was the most entertaining match of the tournament before chaos reigned and the fans frustrations faced off against police on the field in the waning minutes. About 20,000 of the 32,972 spectators at the game reportedly were Honduran supporters.
"We had a crowd that went from a calm contingency of people which turned into chaos," Miami police spokesman Delrish Moss told the Associated Press at the time.
Waldir Saez had given Peru a two-goal cushion at 5-3 in the 87th minute.
But in Honduras' comeback attempt, Carlos Pavon had an apparent goal disallowed via an offside call by referee Mario Sanchez of Chile (a former FIFA referee who officiated at the World Cup and the Olympics). Pavon saw red and kicked the ball into the stands. He then saw red again as Sanchez gave the international forward his marching orders. Teammate Milton Reyes protested and he also was sent off.
By the time Sanchez had called the quarterfinal match with 37 seconds remaining, hundreds of Honduran fans raced onto the field in protest. Security personnel and police were overwhelmed by the onslaught. Some fans fought with police while many who remained in the stands threw anything they could get their hands on -- rocks and stones, liquor bottles, water bottles, water balloons, souvenir seat pads, and even seats they had ripped out from the stadium.
Both teams and their coaching staffs ran for cover into the safety of their respective locker rooms as Sanchez and the officiating crew were given a police escort off the field. Ugly indeed.
Fans fought police - backups in riot gear were called in - and security personnel for some 45 minutes.
"Sadly, it was a beautiful game with a lot of goals, but it was a sad incident that ruined everything," CONCACAF deputy general secretary Ted Howard said.
I wrote that the blame lied squarely on the shoulders of the Honduran National Team, Orange Bowl security and CONCACAF and Gold Cup officials. Those liquor bottles did not find their way into the stadium by themselves (oh yes, remember this was before 9-11 and much stricter security measures at American stadiums and arenas).
Pavon (yes, the same Carlos Pavon currently a crucial part of the Honduran hopes in South Africa) and Reyes were suspended for two matches, which was served in the next round of qualifying for the 2002 Gold Cup. The Honduran Football Federation also was fined $5,000 by the Gold Cup disciplinary commission for misconduct and inciting the crowd.
Peru and Honduras have played in Miami and southern Florida a few more times and, fortunately, there hasn't been a repeat of that ugly scenario.
I would like to add hopefully never again by any team - club or international - in this country. But when it comes to crowd disturbances, having seen it firsthand, unchecked passion can turn the beautiful game ugly in a hurry.