Keeping Hooliganism Out of U.S. Soccer

Soccer may not be played at the highest levels in the United States, but the U.S. has a chance to be the first soccer-playing nation to avoid hooliganism. Dougie Brimson, a reformed soccer hooligan from England, talks about why some fans become louts.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

Another big event this weekend, if you're a fan of U.S. soccer - and that's everyone, right - the Western Conference Championship of Major League Soccer is tonight in Houston. All right, it's not the Super Bowl. The action is followed by a small but die-hard group of fans who attend the games.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Unidentified Man #1: Yeah. Come on.

LYDEN: And like supporters everywhere, they stand, cheer, sing throughout the soccer match, but unlike in other countries, American soccer fans don't get violent - at least, not so far.

NPR's Robert Smith met up with a former football hooligan from Britain who warns that it could happen here.

ROBERT SMITH: When Dougie Brimson walks into a pub in Manhattan, he's easily the toughest-looking guy in the place: bald head, burly chest, scowl.

Are you going to be able to drink a pint with us?

Mr. DOUGIE BRIMSON (Author, "March of the Hooligans"): I don't know. I'm sure I can force one down.

Unidentified Woman: Can I get you a drink?

SMITH: We're here to watch soccer, the Liverpool game on the telly. Brimson's a huge fan of the sport, especially of his beloved team Waterford, although he longer shows that devotion through violence.

SMITH: You punched a fan from an opposing team, right?

Mr. BRIMSON: Punched, kicked, thrown people through windows, thrown bricks have been hit, been caught by all kinds of stuff. I've ended up with broken ribs, broken fingers.

SMITH: But that was 20 years ago. Now, he just writes about it. His latest book, "March of the Hooligans," is a history of soccer violence as well as the story of how he became involved. It was, he says, an addiction.

Mr. BRIMSON: I may not have raced cars. I've been in - when I was in the military, I flew in the backseat of fighter jets. Nothing, nothing comes close to walking down a strange city's center in the middle of the night with 50 lads, knowing that you're going to a bar where there's 50 lads from the other side. Nothing comes close to it.

SMITH: Looking around at the nearly empty bar, he says that, in some ways, America has been lucky so far. The lack of soccer rivalries in this country means that we've avoided the intense hatred of European soccer, but we have to be vigilant, he says.

(Soundbite of soccer game)

Unidentified Man #2: Steven Gerrard doing his best to pull it back to 2-1.

SMITH: Liverpool loses to the Turkish team, and we head outside.

In Brimson's youth, this would have been when the trouble started.

Mr. BRIMSON: If you and me decide, all right, let's have a fight. You know, there's a guy sitting in the corner; a guy in a suit. Let's start a fight with him.

SMITH: Yeah, let's get him.

Mr. BRIMSON: Let's go and we're going to bring him out for the sake of it. But what would be the point?

SMITH: Now, he travels the world talking about how to defuse soccer violence. He met with U.S. soccer officials during his trip here to New York just to warn them.

Mr. BRIMSON: It's easy to say, well, it won't happen here.

SMITH: Because Major League Soccer has trouble filing the stands. How could it happen here?

Mr. BRIMSON: Exactly. But it's it happens everywhere the game is played. You haven't got a soccer tradition in this country, but it's the importation of everybody else is soccer tradition. That's potentially where your problem's going to come.

SMITH: Brimson has to fly back to England, so he can't join me to test his hypothesis at a Major League Soccer game.

The New York Red Bulls are playing the New England Revolution in Giants Stadium, a place so enormous you could hurl a brick during the game and hit nothing but empty seats. But if you go to Section 101, right behind the goal, it feels like you're watching soccer in, well, just about any other country in the world.

A couple hundred fans here are standing the whole game - screaming, singing and hurling obscenities at the opposing players. The songs and chants come from England, Holland, Argentina. Just like the fans, David Simpson says it never gets out of control, but it's close.

Mr. DAVID SIMPSON: The game is all about passion. And you'll always have a few people that go a little bit too far, and they start making stupid decisions and stuff. Like, I went down to D.C. once and I got, you know, hit in the face a couple of times by some hooligans who weren't really there to watch the game; they were there more to start trouble.

(Soundbite of soccer game)

Unidentified Group: Here we go.

SMITH: But Simpson says mostly the fans police themselves. You see, this section is actually supported and encouraged by the Soccer League. The fans here feel like they're almost a part of the team.

(Soundbite of cheering)

At the end of the game - tied 0-0, of course - New York fans in Section 101 stream out of the stands and rush outside. They know exactly where the New England fans will emerge from the stadium. The two groups scream at each other. They make obscene gestures, but that's about it. After a few minutes, they all give up and head out to the parking lot to go home.

Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.

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