With the field almost set for the knockout round of the 2014 World Cup, I know what you’re saying: “Softli, you’re a football guy – not a fútbol guy.”
OK, I’m no expert when it comes to the pitch. I have, however, played and experienced the beautiful game as a spectator at a high level. I was actually introduced to soccer in the mid-70s by the late Frank Ahern at Asa Mercer Junior High in Seattle. Coach Ahern assembled the best athletes in the school during the fall of my seventh-grade year, taught us the game from a strategic standpoint, drilled us on the field for months on the fundamentals of the game and then cut us loose on the weekends to compete. My parents thought I was nuts, because after my little league football game, I found a second wind and wanted to compete in a game that I found skillfully challenging, and one they didn’t understand.
Along with millions of others across the nation, I watched the U.S. team finish in a 2-2 draw against Portugal on Sunday. As ESPN recapped the tournament thus far and also featured a piece on the hundreds of Chilean fans who storm the gates without tickets to watch their team play, leaving a wake of debris, it brought back memories of when I lived abroad and coached American football.
In January 1990, I took a job coaching a squad in Blackpool, England, a resort town nestled on the Flyde Coast line. Miles of picturesque beach front, with a grand boardwalk and the largest amusement park in all of Europe, greeted me every day. I found myself in the perfect part of the UK, too, as far as football was concerned. It was an hour ride by car to both Liverpool and Manchester, which held two of the most prestigious soccer clubs in all of England.
My American players and I made several road trips to attend matches, watching both Manchester United and Liverpool on their home turf. We had a blast standing on cement slabs called terraces, where you’re simply at the mercy of the overcrowded, uncontrollable movement of the fans. I got a strong feeling for another country’s No. 1 sport, not to mention the lack of security and safety within a stadium setting. What I quickly found was that football fans in England were just as crazed as NFL fans – and maybe more. It was extremely exciting, but with the hint of danger in the air.
In England, it’s all about tradition. After all, some of these clubs have been around since the late 1800s. The fans are extremely loyal to their clubs. At NFL games, we do the “wave” and “kiss cam.” Conversely, they get loud with chants, constant roaring and singing from the opening minute to the final whistle. Group fistfights are just part of the action, too, perhaps triggered by some of the best beers, lagers and ales that one will ever sample.
Liverpool went on to win the league title that year, in 1990, and town of Blackpool was abuzz with World Cup conversation. At the time, I had no idea what the World Cup was, where it was played or the slightest bit about its history. All I knew: In England, this was a very serious event.
The English team qualified for the Cup. As I was told, the squad had not been a big threat since the late 1960s. The same couldn’t be said, though, for their traveling fans, who had a well-documented reputation of hooliganism.
Eager to truly learn what all the fuss was about, I set up shot at my “local” (a pub in one’s neighborhood). I began to engage in conversation with an elderly gentlemen, enjoying a few Tennent’s Extra or two some chickpeas. He was a rather well-dressed man, sported a fedora and had a weathered face. He hand-rolled his cigarettes out of a small tin box and proceeded to give me some English football history, both on and off the pitch.
I spent the next several weeks watching England with this wise man. Like a kid being read a great book, I sat on the barstool and clung to his every word. He told me about the highs and lows – and the sheer horrors. In 1985, 39 fans died during during rioting at the European Cup Final in Brussels. As legend goes, 14 Englishmen were the main culprits for instigating the tragedy at the Heysel Stadium.
Another catastrophe occurred that same year when a fire swept through Bradford City’s football stadium. Fifty-six people perished and 265 were injured in the midst of a league match that had attracted a record crowd. The Hillsborough Stadium disaster of 1989 also resulted in the deaths of 96 individuals, who had been pressed against the field barrier and fence.
I absorbed these stories with a sickening feeling in the bottom of my stomach, wondering what happen if the English fell in the World Cup. England ended up losing in the semifinals to West Germany on a shootout. Sure enough, pure madness transpired – in a small resort town with hotels, stores and shops for tourists, no less. I personally witnessed a large group of young men take out their frustrations on the town. Armed with baseball bats, they walked the streets for hours, destroying business storefronts, knocking out picture windows, creating havoc and vandalizing, and generally sending people running for cover. It was unlike anything I had ever seen, even worse than NFL fans rioting and burning cars after a Super Bowl victory.
Thankfully, new ticket protocol in Europe has made for fewer incidents in recent years. Avoiding such tragedies will allow everyone to sit back and enjoy the majesty on display at one of the world’s greatest sporting events.