On Wednesday, February 1, 2012, a spectator riot in Egypt after a soccer match resulted in over 79 deaths. Fans surged the field with weapons in hand, attacking opposing fans, players, and coaches. The story became international news. There were allegations of politics, links to the Arab Spring revolutions that toppled the Mubarak government, and charges that the police stood idly by and let the riot happen for political reasons.
We all know that the sports world can be ugly on occasion. That ugliness is the dark side of sports. Sports has the power to move us. Unfortunately, some people get moved in extremely negative ways. One of our challenges is to control those passions .
One of the strengths of our American youth sports culture is the link between education and sports. This link leads to an emphasis on sportsmanship, character development, and the notion that we can use sports to teach participants and spectators how to react with dignity and grace to adversity inflicted upon us when we are at our most heated. The heat, of course, comes from the passion of sports. We then use that heat to teach that our opponents have value, that a foul is not a personal insult, that a missed call is not grounds to belittle or abuse an official. We then use these lessons, not so much as metaphors for life, but as lessons that we hope will lead us to be appropriately civil in our non-athletic discourse, and to provide us with an ethical foundation, from dealing with business competition to handling setbacks in life. We even use this passion to cultivate drive and persistence; it's no mistake that numerous studies have shown that high school athletes have higher grade point averages than the overall student populace.
Here in America we focus on individual sportsmanship. We spend our time trying to correct individual failings in the hope that we can create a more sportsmanlike youth sports culture. Of course, our sports culture has failures. We see boorish spectators, overzealous parents, and players and coaches who don't get it. However, for the most part, we perceive these people's problems as individual problems.
International soccer, on the other hand, often has group problems, which is a totally alien concept to us. We understand how two spectators can come to blows. However, we don't understand the soccer rowdies who travel from town to town to engage in calculated brawls, accompanied by a little soccer. We understand how spectators can charge a field after a game, but we don't understand how that links to conspiracy theories and political movements. We're dealing with teaching individuals sportsmanship and character at the youth level, and then providing appropriate security for the individual or individuals who lack the character to handle their passions - whether that lack of character is due to an inability to control their passions or, at some levels of sports, is simply alcohol-related.
The Egypt soccer riot was about as bad as it gets. It ranks right up there with some of the worst of the European soccer spectator incidents. However, at the end of the day, the absolute worst thing we've seen in international soccer is something that's unfathomable to us. There once was an incident in soccer that actually led to a war, appropriately named "The Football War."
The 1969 El Salvador/Honduras FIFA World Cup qualifying soccer series was marked by heavy fan violence and rioting at the contest sites. The soccer matches were closely followed by a brief border war (the war lasted for four days, and may have been the last time that prop planes were used in modern warfare). The war may have been brief, but the disruption in trade between the two countries, combined with over 300,000 refugees and a disruption in the Central American Common Market, set the stage for the El Salvadoran Civil War, and contributed to over two decades of economic disruption.
Was it poor sportsmanship that caused the war, or was it just a coincidence that the soccer riot occurred during the escalation of tensions that led to the war? Well, we'll never know. But the poor sportsmanship sure didn't help!
For all of the bad acts and sportsmanship problems we have in America, let's hope that we never experience political riots, or wars caused either in whole or in part by sports.
Posted February 8, 2012