When an English soccer fan was sentenced last week to five years
in jail for futilely kung-fu-kicking a police horse after a
match, the incident settled, once and for all, a barroom question
that had long perplexed mankind: Who would win a street fight
between Mr. Miyagi and Mr. Ed?
But the hand-to-hoof combat answered another question too--one
that was asked incessantly in the buildup to last week's NFL
conference championship games: Who are the most fearsome, most
loathsome, most badly behaved fans on Earth?
To hear their unholier-than-thou boasting, you would think it was
either a) Philadelphia Eagles fans, who filled the Vet, or b)
Oakland Raiders fans, who need a vet.
But the answer, evidently, is neither, when you consider that the
Brit--Millwall supporter Raymond (Mount) Everest--is pushing 60
years of age and that he was once an usher at the Millwall
stadium, on a London street called Cold Blow Lane, on the city's
Isle of Dogs, which sounds alarmingly like Jack the Ripper's
January 27, 2003
Still, in a perverse game of one-downmanship, countless other
groups on the globe are vying for the title of World's Most
Menacing Supporters. Sure, police in Philly have kept fans at bay
with German shepherds straining at the leash. But in some English
soccer stadiums they wield batons and pack pepper spray. (The
spectators, that is. Eight Portsmouth fans were arrested with
those weapons before their team's Dec. 14 match against Stoke
True, an Eagles fan left the Vet stands two weeks ago, sat down
on the home bench and casually asked quarterback Donovan McNabb
how it was hangin'. But in November a fan of Sardinia, in Italian
soccer's second division, ran onto the pitch and punched out the
goalkeeper for rival Messina, knocking him unconscious. This
behavior scarcely separates him from Cro-Magnon man, or even
White Sox fans.
It would be unfair to leave the impression that all sports fans
abroad are soccer hooligans. For many of them--indeed, the vast
majority of them--are cricket hooligans. An entirely unremarkable
one-day international match between England and Australia at the
latter's Melbourne Cricket Ground last month saw 300 spectators
evicted, eight arrested and two, unencumbered by clothing,
disporting on the pitch during play.
A month earlier, while playing in India, West Indies cricketers
were showered with rocks and garbage in Jamshedpur and Nagpur,
whose spectator base resembles a marriage of Cleveland Browns
fans (they threw empty bottles at the Windies) and New York Jets
fans (they set mid-match bonfires in the stands).
In 1995, during the cricket World Cup, cohosted by India and
Pakistan, I passed a 12-hour overnight flight delay in the
perhaps too grandiosely named Maharajah Room at Indira Gandhi
International Airport in New Delhi. The room had one ancient
black-and-white television with horizontal-hold problems, on
which played the semifinal match between India and Sri Lanka,
from a sold-out ground in Calcutta whose capacity was larger than
that of Michigan Stadium. Laying fetally next to me on a
sectional sofa, a slumbering old Indian lady with horizontal-hold
problems of her own broke wind mournfully, her sari billowing out
like lace curtains in a breeze.
When India appeared to be hopelessly out of the match, despondent
fans set fires in the stands. Players were removed from the
pitch, play was halted, and when it finally resumed an hour
later, the stands were--immediately and once again--set alight
like a Bananas Foster. The match was called on account of arson.
Last week the condemned Vet was described on the front page of
The New York Times as "the worst, and wackiest, stadium in pro
football." Less prominently displayed was a story in the Daily
Record of Scotland noting that the mascot of the St. Mirren's
soccer team--a man in a paisley panda suit--was threatened with
arrest for antagonizing rival fans from Queen of the South by
simulating, in front of them, the violation of an inflatable
sheep. British soccer fans may adore Man U action, but they will
not tolerate, under any circumstances, man/ewe action.
In December, 148 supporters of another Scottish team, Glasgow
Celtic, chartered a Boeing 737 to Spain for their team's match
against Celta Vigo. Fans clashed with police during Glasgow's
2--1 loss, but the arrests didn't end there, for, according to an
account in the Glasgow Evening Times, a "near riot" on the return
flight precipitated the pilot's Mayday call at 30,000 feet, the
readying of Royal Air Force helicopters in response and an
emergency landing in Wales. The plane from Spain was mainly for
the sane, but six people were arrested at the airport in Cardiff.
The point is, Veterans Stadium may have been the wackiest venue
in American football, and the Black Hole its most intimidating
place to visit, but they are quaint--and their denizens tame--by
international standards. This is, of course, a compliment. Even
if that Raiders fan dressed as Darth Vader is unlikely to
consider it one.