If you smell pepper gas, a World Cup game is near

June 10, 1994|By ROGER SIMON

While most Americans are not aware that the World Cup Soccer finals will be held in nine U.S. cities next week, interest ought to perk up once the rioting begins.

Violence is not unknown at American sporting events, but it is rare.

Violence and soccer, however, go hand in hand. (Or foot in foot.)

The U.S. Defense Department is spending $15 million on security for the finals, an amount many countries consider laughably small.

But Alan Rothenberg, chairman of World Cup U.S.A., organizer of the event, is not worried in the least.

"I think there's been a huge overemphasis on security," he said.

Rothenberg plans to start a pro soccer league in 12 American cities next year, and so he wants nothing to give soccer a black eye.

Like fences. In other countries, soccer fields are commonly enclosed by fences in order to keep fans from harming the players, the officials, the police and others.

Dallas and Washington have announced plans to erect fences around their soccer fields. But Rothenberg is fighting this.

"If you treat people like animals, they'll act like animals," he has said.

To which I say: "It's time to wake up and smell the pepper gas, Al!"

While it is true that people sometimes get crushed against fences, that is not what worries Rothenberg. He is worried that fences look bad.

But consider the history of soccer violence: On April 15, 1989, in ++ Sheffield, England, a soccer disturbance left 95 dead and 200 injured.

On May 29, 1985 in Brussels, Belgium, a soccer riot (started by English fans) left 39 dead.

"But outside of England, and they're not coming, there hasn't been exporting of hooliganism to World Cup matches," Rothenberg said. "We just don't expect it."

But he should expect it. Because although England is not coming here, Argentina is.

"Argentines are in a slightly scary class of their own," the Los Angeles Times reported this week. "They've all but institutionalized soccer hooliganism and even the most peaceful fans blithely toss bottles and cherry bombs. . . ."

At one Argentine soccer stadium, the field is protected by a concrete embankment, a moat and a 20-foot-high net. The police have attack dogs and are armed. Unfortunately, the fans are also armed. Last month after a game, six people were shot and two died.

And after matches, the losers "leave behind their traditional calling card," which is going through the streets setting fire to "everything combustible."

But is Rothenberg worried? Naw.

"What we are concerned about," he said, "is that local police and others don't confuse the passionate fan with the troublemakers."

But just try telling them apart. Four years ago at the World Cup finals in Italy, law enforcement officers had to use tear gas, batons, and rifle butts to disperse rioters, and the Italian government spent $65 million on security.

In 1964, a soccer riot in Lima, Peru, left 318 dead and in 1955 in Naples, Italy, 152 were killed. The most famous example of soccer violence was the "Soccer War" of 1969 between El Salvador and Honduras, with a death toll of close to 2,000.

But Rothenberg is not worried.

"Undoubtedly there will be some fisticuffs and arguments," he said. "I hope to God that the police don't overreact and the media doesn't make a big deal out of soccer violence."

On the contrary, however, some media are cooperating with violence. In Dallas, where a fence was to be erected, broadcasters complained that it would spoil their pictures, so half the fence will be taken down.

And the Dallas organizers made another brilliant decision: Beer will be sold both inside and outside the stadium.

Some people wanted to ban alcohol to reduce violence, but Anheuser-Busch, which paid more than $10 million to be an official World Cup sponsor, thought that was a really bad idea.

The solution? Under the guidelines of World Cup U.S.A.'s "responsible alcohol policy," you will be able to buy only two 12-ounce cups of beer at a time.

And who can get drunk and rowdy drinking only one and a half pints of beer at a time?

Just why, however, is there so much violence associated with soccer?

As near as I can figure, it's the only way people can stay awake during the games.

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