Port Said & The Portland Timbers

Portland TimbersThose of us who sit in the stands at Jeld-Wen Field cheering on our Timbers seldom think about the truly ugly and dangerous side of soccer. Safely ensconced among the Timbers Army crazies in section 107…or wherever we happen to be taking in the action…one’s safety is never really in doubt. Sure, we scream at the opposing team, or at their fans, or both. Sometimes things get a bit profane, but usually everyone involved (hopefully) understands that it’s all in good fun. This isn’t North London or Belgrade or Cartagena…or Port Said, Egypt. We can be justifiably proud of our ability to keep the beautiful game in perspective and remember that it is, after all, just a game. In most of the rest of the world, the simple act of attending a soccer game can mean literally taking your life in your hands.

I mention Port Said because last week 74 fans were killed and at least 1000 were injured after a game ended. Al-Masry, the home team, had just beaten Egypt’s top team, Al-Ahly 3-1. Evidently this is a rare occurrence and cause for celebration. Supporters of Al-Masry commemorated the moment by storming the pitch, chasing Al-Ahly players and beating supporters while throwing sticks, stones, and chairs. Evidently, Egyptian hospitality isn’t nearly what it was during my travels in the Middle East.

Reports indicated that most of the deaths resulted from concussions, blood loss from deep cuts to the heads and suffocation from the stampede. Al-Ahly’s players were forced to take refuge in their dressing room while the team’s manager had to be rescued from fans that were beating him.

Al-Masry WON. Kinda makes you wonder what their supporters would have done if the lads had lost, doesn’t it? And you thought the Timbers-Sounders rivalry gets testy at times….

After the riot in Port Said, officials in Cairo postponed a game between Al-Ismaili and Zamalek. Fans evidently with more time on their hands than common sense then set fire to Cairo’s main stadium. Just like Timbers fans would do, right?

When you examine this sorry phenomenon, you see that North America represents the only part of the world where violence and soccer aren’t flip sides of the same coin. Though somewhat diminished in recent years, the epic tales of fights between supporters of English sides are legendary…or shameful, depending on your perspective. Until the mid- to late-‘80s, the main purpose of a supporter’s club was to attack and beat up supporters of other teams. The games were of secondary importance. Soccer hooliganism was for too many a career path in the UK. Several former hooligans were so full of themselves that they wrote books about their “exploits.” It seems some of them could spell and articulate themselves in something resembling complete sentences. Serbia has an even worse history. There, most supporters groups were (and in some cases continue to be) fronts for criminal activities like smuggling, kidnapping, and murder.

Think about that the next time you want to complain about some of the Timbers Army’s more profane chants….

What happened in Port Said was an extreme and thankfully infrequent tragedy. That said, something along those lines is always a possibility in places where passionate fans have few outlets for their frustration and anger. The last time a similar tragedy occurred was in 1996, when 78 died and 180 were injured during a riot in Guatemala City prior to a Costa Rica- Guatemala World Cup qualifying match.

Even in “civilized” places like England, violence is never far below the surface. I’ve lived and worked in three war zones, so you’d think I know violence. I’ve stood in a village square in Croatia while Serb snipers hunkered down in the hillside not 400 meters away. Yet I’ve never feared for my safety as I did when I stood on the terraces during a Manchester United-Chelsea match. The profane, vicious chants, the pervasive smell of alcohol, the atmosphere of hatred and menace, and the razor wire topping the barriers that separated supporters rendered the game a secondary concern. It was hardly an atmosphere conducive to enjoying a match between two of the best teams in the world.

I recall Man U beating Chelsea 3-1, but I remember little of the match, preoccupied as I was with not being assaulted…or worse. It was sad, really; seeing an English Premier League game had long been a dream. I realized that dream, only to have it quickly reduced to a matter of survival and making it back to the tube station without being set upon by hooligans.

In many parts of the world, soccer violence is closely related to political unrest. That violence can be, and often is, a mass expression of anger and frustration over corrupt, inept, and despotic governments unwilling and/or unable to meet the needs of their people. In too many places, lacking an outlet for their dissatisfaction and disillusionment, fans turn soccer stadiums into cauldrons. Passion, anger, and frustration are pureed into a concoction needing only a spark and a mob mentality to set it off. Combine that with a security presence that’s often so minimal, poorly equipped, and inept as to be virtually nonexistent, and it doesn’t take much to imagine the worst.

In some countries, soccer fields are surrounded by moats to keep fans from rushing the pitch. In others, fences topped with razor wire surround the playing surface. And have you ever wondered why those odd-looking curved shelters cover benches? In some parts of the world, fans have been known to throw objects at players- stones, batteries, or whatever projectiles they happen to have on hand.

Honduras and El Salvador actually fought what become known as the “Soccer War” in 1969, which only goes to show how seriously some outside of North America take the game. No, soccer wasn’t the only point of conflict, but you get the idea….

The craziness can occasionally extend beyond the soccer pitch. While I was living in Kosovo, I watched the Serbian basketball league’s championship game between Red Star Belgrade (Crvena Zvezda) and Partizan Belgrade. The game was pedestrian at best, and I’ve long since forgotten the winner and the score. What stunned and amazed me, though, were the fans of the winning team lighting flares and fire crackers…in an indoor arena.

Try that the next time you go to a Blazers game, eh?

It’s easy to take for granted the safety we enjoy at sporting events in this country. Events like a Timbers game are considered to be family-friendly events. In most of the rest of the world, no conscientious parent would dream of taking their family to a soccer match. In many countries, the crowds in the seats and standing on the terraces are overwhelmingly male, drunk, and belligerent- not exactly a recipe for a family outing.

The next time you go to a Timbers game, take a good look around. Be grateful for being able to enjoy the game without the benefit of razor wire…or armed policemen patrolling the stands. And be thankful that all 20,000 of you can count on getting home alive.

About Arran Gimba