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On the Road with San Jose’s 1906 Ultras

When San Jose Earthquakes striker, Alan Gordon, scored the winner in the last minute of stoppage time against LA Galaxy in Los Angeles in mid-May, he peeled off his strip in celebration. By then, many of the 1906 Ultras, San Jose’s wild band of traveling supporters, were already stripped to the waist. In the space of seventeen minutes, the Quakes had overcome a two-goal deficit. Gordon’s flash sent the Ultras into overdrive. The final whistle sounded. The Quakes were top of the league. David Beckham and the LA Galaxy were in the black hole at the bottom.

You’re in Last Place, chanted the Ultras at their enemies in the Angel City Brigade, the Los Angeles supporters group, now in a state of collective silent shock behind the goal. The 1906 Ultras had claimed them. They serenaded the Angelinos. You Only Sing When You’re Winning, the taunt to the tune of La Guantanamera.

Traveling to your team’s road games is part of soccer fan culture. Call it the “away day.” The Ultras set out from San Jose at 6.45AM treating themselves to a breakfast of tequila, vodka, whisky and beer. Their leader, Dan, in an email to the group before the departure warned, “Control your drinking! If people are sloppy drunk when we get to LA, they will be left in the bus. I guarantee you that.” When Dan speaks, everyone listens. He is the top boy. Running a successful away day falls on his shoulders – the bus, the accommodation, the supplies and the tickets. “Being an Ultra is a way of life,” he says, “it is 24/7.”

The term Ultras says it all: hardcore supporters at the edge, well above the norm of regular fan. San Jose’s Ultras are a band of brothers and sisters. Their roll call includes lawyers, software engineers, union organizers, retail workers – folks from all walks of life. Mexicans, Salvadorans, Romanians mix with suburban American kids. Some help design the banners seen at the Quakes games. Others carry the flags. Lyricists compose their songs and chants. Their drummer pounds the beat in the bleachers. All together now, everyone singing, We are the crazy Ultras from the Bay, fighting in Seattle and LA.

The bus finally arrived in Los Angeles. The Galaxy’s stadium security was waiting.  Keep the “hate LA” chants down to a minimum was the request. But it was never going to happen. This was NorCal v SoCal. San Jose was here to rub them the wrong way for the full ninety-minutes. They never stopped singing. The drum pounded, Beat LA. It was too much for some in the Angel City Brigade. Security and cops did a good job keeping out the occasional mad Angelino throwing himself at the cordon. The odd gang fingers flashed and rolled. The middle finger was everywhere. Some of the language would have curled grandma’s toes.

Post-game, the police helicopter swooped overhead, the light beam spotting the 1906 Ultras below, now in full war whoop dancing on the conquered turf. Their ring was jubilant. They locked shoulders in a bouncing circle having claimed their scalp. It was a Hollywood moment, a fantastic ending. The spotlight followed the bouncing bus out of the stadium. Someone had a phone raised in his hands – Chris Wondolowski, the Quakes star striker who had missed the game after being called up to play for the US Men’s National Team, was on the line. The Ultras broke into song You are my Wondo, my Wondolowski. You make me happy, when skies are grey.

The influence of supporter groups is growing throughout American soccer. Seattle’s Emerald City Supporters and Portland’s Timber Army pull huge numbers. The New York Red Bulls boasts three such groups. Visit an MLS stadium and you see how pivotal the phenomenon is to bringing energy to the event. This transfers to the players on the field. It is a marked contrast to other US sports where spectators can be sedentary and have to be fed prompts – don’t forget to cheer. At soccer, you go along to participate. You go along to jump and sing. You don’t need anyone to remind you as to why you are there.

Major League Soccer is now embracing supporters groups as a vehicle for expanding its brand. “At first MLS rejected the idea of hardcore supporters groups, “ says Dan of the 1906 Ultras, “they catered to soccer moms and kids. Lately they are trying to appeal to fan groups. However they are trying to keep 100% control. I am working with Ultras to keep the groups independent from the front offices and the league.”

The day after the night before and the long trek back to NorCal. A deep sense of satisfaction kept the hangover storms beneath the blue horizon. And Ultras talk was already springing forward to the next Quakes home game on June 30. The visitors – LA Galaxy and the Angel City Brigade.

This article first appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Alan Black is the soccer columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read his memoir, Kick the Balls, the tale of the worst kids team in global soccer history.



Interview: MLS Commissioner Don Garber

MLS Commissioner Don Garber visited San Francisco recently. The Header’s Alan Black sat down with him for chat.

AB: MLS has been successful in developing its product through the language of business but how successful has it been developing the culture of soccer and what challenges lie ahead to maintain momentum in that vein?

DG: The biggest driver of the league’s recent success is the development of a soccer culture driven by the passion of supporters. They are the engine driving major league soccer today. Five years ago we might have had a handful of clubs, DC (United) was one of them that had supporters, thousands of people who are really passionate about the game creating an environment that gives us a distinction that is separate from all the other pro-sports experiences here. Now you have those supporters everywhere.  Americans are learning what it is like to truly be fans and celebrate in their stadiums like they do in South America and Europe. That has been key to the development of the league for sure. It provides us with an opportunity to have a more unique experience to sell to sponsors and broadcasters and to even convince players that they can come into the league and have fans that really care.  I bumped into Robbie Keane in LA recently and I asked him, how is it going for you? and he said it was amazing. If people in the UK really understood what was happening in a lot of markets, what’s happening in Seattle, or Kansas City or Philadelphia, they would be surprised. Most people abroad don’t really believe that Americans can get soccer but we are getting it, it is part of a movement, the national team getting better, the league growing, more television coverage, more support, more cultural acceptance. We don’t have that many people now who are soccer bashers like when I came in ten years ago. They might not love it but they can’t deny it is happening when Fox and Telemundo spent over a billion dollars for World Cup rights, you can’t deny that soccer is here. Organic growth is the most important growth that you can have, you can try to manufacture cultural relevance but you’ll never win that way, you’ve got to have it kind of bubble up in an organic way and that is happening.

AB: Seventeen seasons of MLS, twelve under Don Garber – what have you learned from it?

DG: Americans and Canadians love the game but we have to deliver the game that they want to be experiencing, that means the right stadium environments, the right marketing and promotion, the right broadcast quality, the right scheduling, it means the right quality of play on the field. When I first came in, I thought , this is the world’s game, 80 million kids play, let’s turn on the lights and everybody will be an MLS fan. I realized that there were some really sophisticated people that are connected with the game and they are not going to follow us just because we are playing with a round ball on a big piece of grass, we’ve got to really understand and respect their knowledge and their experiences and deliver a product quality in an environment that they can connect to.

AB: The US Federation’s decision to introduce the all-year round season for the top boy’s teams, can you comment on the debate over parents and kids having to choose high school sports or the MLS academies?

DG: I played high school sports, my son played high school sports…I have mixed feelings about what it means culturally but when I am thinking about it as the Commissioner of Major League Soccer there is no question that this is the right thing to do. If we are going to have a national team that can compete with England, Brazil, Germany, Argentina and Spain, we have to have a proper development program primarily driven by our MLS clubs with academies that are training players almost full-time and giving them the right environments and programs to get better. If we don’t do that we will never be able to truly compete with the best countries in the world because that is what they are doing, and they also have kids who are growing up with a soccer ball in their hands when they are two, whereas we have kids growing up with lots of different balls in their hands, and hopefully they are not using their hands by playing our sport.

AB: So the goal is to make MLS one of the top leagues in the world.

DG: We set that goal when we were bidding for the World Cup and for some strange reason we lost, the World Cup will be in Qatar in 2022, but when we set that goal as part of our World Cup bidding process, we didn’t want to change it just because we lost, we thought that would be quintessentially un-American, it would be weak, we wanted to say, be bold and go forward with this plan and be one of the best leagues in the world, knowing that we had to improve the quality of play, ensure that we had the right marketing and promotion, and very importantly be sure that we had the right economic system because it wasn’t just about having a handful of really popular clubs but to ensure that our whole league would be viable economically.

AB: Locally the Quakes are hopefully breaking ground on their new stadium, how significant will that be for soccer fans in the Bay Area?

It is so incredibly important to have the right environment, the right grounds for fans and players, the media and other influences to be able to connect with. In American sports you take for granted that the 49ers will be playing in a nice stadium, they might get a better stadium but nobody doubts that they are going to have their own stadium…soccer is no different, if we are going to achieve our goals we have to have the right facilities. Earthquakes having their own facility, hopefully sometime soon, will be transformational.

AB: What would you like your legacy to be after you are done with being Commissioner of MLS?

DG: It’s a good question, no one has ever asked me that question before, so I’ll have to think about that on the fly, ultimately it is to be able to walk away from this with a professional Division One soccer league that matters in the US and Canada, so that the league will no longer have to question as to why it is not as good as the European leagues, or why is it that it is not having the television ratings that other pro-sports have, all of those things will be addressed, it matters, it’s got the right partners, it’s got the right players, and the right teams and facilities and America is proud of it.

Soccer: That American Game

Bad news for all those soccer haters out there. Your ignorance is no longer bliss. Professional soccer is now the second most popular sport in the USA in a key age group, 12-24. The NFL tops the list. Baseball has slipped to fourth behind basketball. The poll findings, conducted by ESPN/Luker, comes on the eve of the opening of Major League Soccer’s season, this Saturday. The United States Men’s National Team sets out on the road to the 2014 Brazil World Cup, this summer. The hoopla begins. So why is soccer popular with American youth? Shouldn’t nativists be starting a STOP campaign, or Rush Limbaugh be penning a tome – The War On American Sports! Too late. Blame globalization. Blame Landon Donovan for setting off USA! chants that were heard across the nation at the last World Cup. Soccer is plugged into a world feed, a global consciousness, a massive social network – it matches the times. Combine this with the fruition of the suburban soccer game known to millions of American families. Un-American is no longer a charge that sticks to soccer.

What of the other indictments?

Boring - fans know soccer to be the opposite. A game that moves for ninety minutes compared to sports where sitting down is a large part of the player action. Grid Iron has about eleven minutes of actual play. The rest of the time is filled with TV ads and replays. No question that football and baseball are great sports. But the soccer haters in those camps, increasingly a minority, need to take a look in the same-old mirror and ask themselves, do I have time to order another Dominos pizza? Yes, you do. Crossover fans to soccer from the big two sports, an increasing number, appreciate watching a sport on TV that is not dissected by products being jammed down your throat every two minutes. That is boring.

Low scores – the insistence on large totals of points or runs increasingly looks like an empty high calorie diet leading to bloat and Mark McGuire’s Michelin man costume during the baseball age of needles. Appreciate soccer as a gestation, a formation that may only deliver once but may produce the most beautiful moment. Patience, expectation, labored breathing, brushes with anxiety and angst sweep through soccer crowds. It is not up and down. Or on and off. Or even win and lose. It is not a product to be consumed like happy blind entertainment. Best-selling author, Nick Hornby, in his 1992 soccer memoir, Fever Pitch, writes “the natural state of the football fan is bitter disappointment, no matter what the score.” While this may be too somber an assessment in this age of attacking flair from the likes of Lionel Messi and Ronaldo, it reflects the measure of soccer being more true to life, less like a dream, more of a struggle. These days, it seems rather apt.

Photo: David Wilson

Alan Black is the author of two books, “Kick the Balls – An Offensive Suburban Odyssey”, and “The Glorious World Cup” with David Henry Sterry. He writes for the San Francisco Chronicle and Huffington Post.

Muslim Players Win Hijab Battle in Struggle for Women’s Rights

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. This article first appeared in his blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.

Observant Muslim women soccer players won a first victory on Saturday with the endorsement by the International Football Association Board’s (IFAB) decision to allow the players to test specially designed headscarves for the next four months.

The proposal presented to the IFAB, the soccer body that determines the game’s rules, was tabled by world soccer body FIFA vice president Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein, a proponent of women’s rights.

Prince Ali’s campaign to lift the ban on Muslim women wearing a headdress in competition matches garnered over the past year widespread support from among others the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), the United Nations and the International Federation of Professional Footballers as well as members of the FIFA executive committee.

Prince Ali launched his campaign after Iran was disqualified for this year’s London Olympics because it appeared last year on the pitch in Amman for a qualifier against Jordan with its players wearing the hijab, the headdress that covers a woman’s hair, ears and neck. Three Jordanian hijab-wearing players were also barred.

IFAB, a grouping whose membership – FIFA, England, Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland – harks back to British colonialism’s globalization of the beautiful game, will review its decision in early July based on the experience of the coming four months.

“I am deeply grateful that the proposal to allow women to wear the headscarf was unanimously endorsed by all members of IFAB. I welcome their decision for an accelerated process to further test the current design and I’m confident that once the final ratification at the special meeting of IFAB takes place, we will see many delighted and happy players returning to the field and playing the game they love, ,” Prince Ali said.

While the IFAB decision constitutes an important tangible as well as psychological victory for Muslim women athletes, it by no way resolves all of their problems, many of which have less to do with religion and more to do with inbred traditions of patriarchic societies as well as non-Muslim prejudices.

“Female athletes in the Middle East face pressures that include family, religion, politics, and culture. These issues often take place over use or nonuse of the hijab, the traditional head covering for Muslim women,” concluded a recent study entitled ‘Muslim Female Athletes and the Hijab’ by Geoff Harkness, a sociologist at Northwestern University’s campus in Qatar, and one of his basketball playing students, Samira Islam.

The study based on interviews with female athletes and their coaches found that sports often empowered young women whose role models are successful sportswomen like Fatima Al-Nabhani, an Omani tennis player, and Bahraini sprinter Roqaya Al-Ghasara, who was fully covered when she ran and won at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. “Both women not only serve as role models for aspiring female athletes from the region, but also shatter Western stereotypes,” the report said. Eight other female athletes competed in Beijing wearing the hijab in sprinting, rowing, taekwondo and archery.

In a statement French women’s groups – the International League for Women’s Rights, the French Coordination for the European Women’s Lobby and Femix’Sports –  charged that IFAB with its decision was “acceding to the demand of the Iranian Federation football, raises the gravest questions on the interference of politics in sports, as well as on the issue of transparency in decision-making both by leading football bodies and by the United Nations.”

Resistance to women playing soccer with or without their head covered is not restricted to Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa. Palestine’s women soccer team includes 14 Christians and only four Muslims but a majority of the team has similar tales to tell about the obstacles they needed to overcome and the initial resistance they met from their families.

In a break with tradition, Kuwait this weekend hosted the first Gulf university soccer tournament for females at its Gulf University for Science and Technology (GUST) in which Saudi Arabia fielded its first ever women’s soccer team in an international competition.

“Out of commitment to its social role, besides the academic one, GUST seeks to promote female sports in Kuwait and in the Arabian Gulf region through organizing and patronizing such competitions,” GUST Chancellor Afaf Al-Rakhis said. She described women’s sports as a reflection of the social and cultural advancement of a country.

That’s a strong statement given resistance in Kuwait to women’s soccer and the fact that Saudi Arabia bans women’s sports and only tacitly allows women’s teams to be formed in private settings.

Kuwaiti Islamists denounced GUST’s plans for the tournament when they were first announced last year and urged the government the competition. “Women playing football is unacceptable and contrary to human nature and good customs. The government has to step in and drop the tournament,” Kuwait’s Al Wasat newspaper quoted member of parliament Waleed al-Tabtabai as saying.

Mr. Tabtabai was one of a number of deputies who criticized the government and sports executives for allowing the Kuwaiti women’s national soccer team to take part in the Third West Asian Women Soccer Tournament in Abu Dhabi. The members of parliament charged that the women’s participation had been illegal and a waste of money. “Football is not meant for women, anyway,” Mr. Tabtabai said at the time.

Saudi-owned Al Arabiya satellite tv quoting Reuters reported that the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority had earlier this year announced plans to introduce after-hours physical education classes for both girls and boys. Public schools in the kingdom do not offer girls physical education. It was not clear why the investment authority rather than the Saudi authority responsible for youth and sports would be spearheading an initiative to facilitate women’s sports.

Al Arabiya conceded that professional women athletes in the kingdom “are publicly slammed for going against their natural role” and reported that Saudi newspapers refer to them as “shameless” because they cause embarrassment to their families. Women athletes often receive text messages urging them to stay home and tend to their household duties as mothers and wives, Al Arabiya said.

“If there is no support from the family we cannot get into these types of activities … some people are extremist or extra conservative,” it quoted 17-year old basketball player Hadeer Sadagah as saying.

International human rights group Human Rights Watch last month accused Saudi Arabia of kowtowing to assertions by the country’s powerful conservative Muslim clerics that female sports constitute “steps of the devil” that will encourage immorality and reduce women’s chances of meeting the requirements for marriage.

The Human Rights Watch charges contained in a report entitled “’Steps of the Devil’ came on the heels of the kingdom backtracking on a plan to build its first stadium especially designed to allow women who are currently barred from attending soccer matches because of the kingdom’s strict public gender segregation to watch games. The planned stadium was supposed to open in 2014.

The report borrows its name from a religious edict by Sheikh Abdulkareem al-Khudair, a member of the kingdom’s Supreme Council for Religious Scholars, banning sports for women because they “will lead to following in the footsteps of the devil.” Sheikh Al-Khudair said the government could not introduce sports in schools for girls because such activity is forbidden in Islam.

Saudi women, including some members of the royal family, nonetheless are pushing the envelope. A group of women is planning a hiking expedition to Everest base camp this summer as part of a charity fundraising exercise to promote a healthy lifestyle for breast cancer patients.

“As a nation we need to focus on preventative measures that include healthy lifestyle, specifically nutrition and fitness and early detection (of women’s illnesses). The inspiration to climb Everest base camp came from the basic idea that a healthy lifestyle and healthy body can fight illness better,” Al Arabiya quoted Princess Reema al-Saud, who is leading the Everest climb as saying.

Lebanese Victory Boosts National Unity and Spotlights Gulf Problems

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. This article first appeared in his blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.

Lebanon advanced for the first time in its soccer history to the fourth and final Asian qualifying round for the 2014 World Cup despite losing this week to the United Arab Emirates. In doing so, the Lebanese squad cemented soccer’s role as a rallying point for a country divided and scarred by years of bitter civil war afraid that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s sectarian-tainted brutal crackdown could spill into the streets of Lebanese cities.

In a country where almost every facet of life is defined by sectarian fault lines, Lebanon’s advance had people from all walks of life glued to television sets and computer screens in offices, university lecture halls, sports bars and living rooms. Schools closed early for students to be able to watch the match.

The Lebanese success even if it was by default strengthened soccer’s unifying role two months after the national team’s defeat of South Korea in December brought tens of thousands into the streets of the Lebanese capital Beirut waving the country’s red and white flag with a green cedar in the middle. As Lebanon scored against South Korea sectarian chants in Beirut’s Cite Sportive stadium were replaced with roars of “Minshan Allah, Libnan yallah” – “For God’s Sake, Lebanon Come On” as fans belonging to the country’s multiple sects and political groups united behind their national squad.

Nonetheless, fighting last month between supporters of Mr. Assad, and those who oppose his regime in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli signaled just how fragile that sense of national unity is. Three people were killed and many more were injured in 24 hours of fighting.

Meanwhile, in a weird twist of events, Lebanese fans attending Wednesday’s match in Abu Dhabi against the UAE spotlighted a key weakness of soccer in the Gulf that has fuelled some of the criticism of Qatar’s winning in late 2010 of the right to host the 2022 World Cup: the lack of a fan base eager to come to the stadium to cheer their team.

The estimated 6,000 Lebanese fans outnumbered the Emiratis on Wednesday in Abu Dhabi’s Al Nahyan Stadium. To be sure with an estimated 100,000 Lebanese expats resident in the UAE many of the Lebanese did not have to travel far for the match. Nonetheless, news reports said that Lebanese supporters had come from as far as Brazil and Britain to support their team.

The Gulf News reported that Emiratis boycotted the match because their team did not stand a chance irrespective of whether it defeated Lebanon or not of reaching the World Cup finals as it had done once before in 1990.

While that may be true it evades the structural problem with filling stadiums in a part of the world where the local population often constitutes a minority of the total population. In the UAE, locals account for at best 15% of the population whose vast majority are expatriates.

A recent survey by Abu Dhabi daily The National concluded that the Mohamed bin Zayed Stadium of the emirate’s Al Jazira Sports & Culture club was among the UAE’s most popular sport venues. The stadium owes it popularity only in part to its futuristic design that lacks a runway track and allows fans to be seated closer to the field.

Equally important is the fact that Al Jazira has some of the highest attendance figures in the Gulf because its former chief executive officer, Englishman Phil Anderton, a former marketeer for Scottish Rugby, Coca Cola and Procter & Gamble, was willing to go places others in the Gulf shied away from because they were afraid of upsetting the fragile demographic apple cart.

In a bid to raise match attendance and integrate his club with the community, Mr. Anderton reached out to the expatriate population – a move Gulf clubs controlled by the region’s ruling families have avoided out of fear that this would give foreigners a stake that could encourage them over time to demand greater rights.

Mr. Anderton’s strategy worked. Within a year attendance figures at the Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium had quadrupled drawing a record crowd of 28,164 for a match against Al Wasl. Redevelopment of the stadium has increased its capacity from 15,000 to 42,000. Ironically, the increased number of expats has sparked greater enthusiasm among Emiratis.

“The number of Al Jazira’s home fans is really impressive as they really get a good crowd. You enjoy the game thrice as much than the stadium being more than half empty. Also, we see a lot of expats at their games so it’s great that they are showing an interest in the Pro League,” The National quoted rival Al Nasr fan Faisal Hamadi as saying.

“We looked at who was coming and who wasn’t and why. There was a lack of awareness and a range of misconceptions – they thought it was amateur or for Emiratis only. From this we developed a brand position to encourage people interested in football to come to the club. With the transitory nature few felt a connection so we are trying to unite the city through the club with the tag line ‘Pride of Abu Dhabi’. We developed a full marketing plan with advertising and PR as well as going into local schools and communities to try and change perceptions and raise awareness,” Mr. Anderson said in an interview last year.

“We showcased our star players and organized tournaments for the community in our facilities. Once we encouraged people to come to the games and feel part of the club we had to deliver a product. We needed to make sure that we treated people well when they came, with food in a clean well sign-posted stadium and then we needed to put on a good show where football is at the core of other entertainment options – it’s more an American model,” he added.

Mr. Anderton’s approach broke with Gulf practice in more than one way. Arguing that teams can only exploit their home advantage if they have the crowd cheering them on during matches, he also argued in favor of turning clubs dependent on the politically motivated largesse of their royal and tribal owners into commercially viable entities.

“Historically clubs here didn’t have the requirement to go into the commercial side of things but we want to develop sponsorship, merchandise, ticketing and hospitality from using our facilities 365 days a year via leasing in order to set down a sustainable business model, which inevitably leads to success on the field,” Mr. Anderton said.

Renaissance Venice: Birthplace of Modern Hooliganism

Zuzzateste would be up with the sun, the boys were meeting at the local taverna to swallow some vino then catch the early gondola. The capi – think top boy – would be in fine voice leading the chants – to the vendetta, to the slaughter, everyone follow me! The lads would be decked out in the local colors. Local denizens would be cowering at the site of the mob or getting ready to go watch another week’s match up in the War of the Fists – la guerra dei pugni – Renaissance Venice’s hooligan extravaganza.

Blokes like Zuzzateste, translate as the sucker of heads, and his fighting mates with names like Tre Riose du Cul (Three Farts to his friends) would be coming off long days of work in the Venetian trades – builders, bakers, candlestick makers – all ramped up for a weekend of ultraviolence against other Venetian outfits.

The battagliolas took place on the scores of bridges that stitched Venice together like a laced boot. An appropriately named bridge, Ponte de Pugni, was the arc for many of the big stomps; the warring factions wading in on each other, many of the fighters tossed over the side into the crummy, shite-filled canal below. Thirty-thousand supporters cheered them on, decked out in colors and flags, chanting the Venetian version of Come and Have a Go If You Think You’re Hard Enough. It was pure late-Renaissance madness. The authorities tried banning orders, arrests, but the promoters of the times built stands, sponsored teams, celebrated champions and sold stuff to the spectators – donuts were hot. A whizz of fame spat out local heroes, many of the toughest hard nuts had no problem getting a free glass of Chianti for life down at the local taverna. Painters celebrated the chaos on canvas. Writers drew their pens. The trouble lasted for over a hundred years.

Venice’s Castellani and Nicolotti factions ruled the manors. They splintered into sub-groups with fierce loyalty to their local parishes. In the late sixteenth century, they were warring with sticks and knives but around 1585, the Castellani tired of taking stitches out, and abandoned being tooled up. They suggested battles should now be strictly mano a mano. The Nicolotti, not shy of trouble but afraid of being seen as unmanly, agreed. The mass punch up arrived. Anyone caught bringing weapons was castigated and thrown into some shite-filled canal away from the fists and thrills.

Naturally, honor was involved. The bridges offered neutrality in a city segregated by water, land and blood. To lose to another mob on your own patch was a deep and wounding shame. The bridges represented a no man’s land, of sorts. Defeat was less traumatizing there. But the idea of taking territory, similar to modern hooligans taking “the end” of the opponent’s stadium, was too much of a temptation. Victorious, buzzing mobs standing atop their conquered bridges would soon charge into the defeated enemy turf to ransack their squares and piazzas, to root them out of home and hearth. Hatred flourished. Revenge was served up cold.

Then around 1700, someone likely imported a ball from the Orient. Soon blokes with ball skills and fancy haircuts were figuring out that broken noses and the smell of sewage under the armpits after a canal swim was not doing much for the chances of a shag on a Saturday night. The fans too began to get bored of the spectacle, same old tired stuff, like watching England’s national team play. In 1705, a battle degenerated from fists to chucking roof slates and the knives came out. Riot ensued, buildings burned. The shite-filled canal turned red. This time the authorities stamped on the mobs repeatedly, finally breaking the knuckle on the War of the Fists. Venice, the city that exported art, philosophy and culture to the world, now added hooliganism to its load where it washed up on the shores of modern soccer.

Alan Black is the author of two books, “Kick the Balls – An Offensive Suburban Odyssey”, and “The Glorious World Cup” with David Henry Sterry. He writes for the San Francisco Chronicle and Huffington Post.


Luke Jimmy James here, The Valley of The Soccer Gods is barren with grief. I’m keeping my head down, maintaining a low profile, you might even say I’m being green, or that The Header budget doesn’t run to rental camels, so I am well and truly on my pennyfarthing.

I’ve pedaled like a bugger and thanks to the Valley’s traffic system I’ve managed to keep pace with Zeus’s limo. He’s pulled up just ahead in the Athlete’s Foothills of Mount Nike. I’ve just parked my bike between the buttocks of a snoozing shepherd and am creeping through midfield towards the limo. The mouth of the cave is littered with statues. Zeus is out of the limo, brow like thunder, toga flapping and he’s into the cave. No time added, I’m going after him. At least there’s no turnstile or seven-headed dog guarding the entrance, just an old sawback nag tied up. Strange, the horse is muttering “what a friend, what a friend” over and over.

I’m in through the cave entrance now, and the floor’s littered with empty red wine bottles. Some pretty expensive vintages too if this reporter is any judge of a label. No Hirondelle here. I’m crouched behind a boulder and I can see Zeus talking to a figure who appears to be struggling to repair the frame on a broken transfer window. Looks like he could use a glazier or two to help him. I look at this damp and fetid cave. The walls are dripping blackened tears. What is this fearful place, a craven cottage in hell? There’s not much light, just a dull red glow coming from the figure’s nose. Zeus’s laughter is echoing around the chamber, he’s holding something aloft, it appears to be the soccer uniform and printed on its back is a name that strikes fear into those afflicted by cross eyes, face boils, and black teeth… BECKHAM – the enemy of all things ugly. The figure is gnashing his teeth, lashing out at Beckham’s name on the shirt, he’s moaning, a dreadful wailing fills the air.

“Where is gone my one true son? Why does he hide in the New World?”

Zeus has got the cackling under control. He’s addressing Fergiex:

“Foolish mortal. Did you not clobber your beloved son on the head with a football cleat? Did not your lust for silverware so boil your blood that you lashed out at him?”

“It was an accident. I didnae mean to … I just wanted what was best … I just wanted to carry on … being the best.”

Fergiex is fumbling blindly around among the litter of bottles at his feet. He’s looking for one last taste of victory’s wine. He’s trawling the dregs. But the bottles are all empty; they clatter with a hollow sound around his ankles.

He raises his head,

“One … last … trophy … I beg of you … one last trophy.”

We are indeed but unwanted bubbles in the Jacuzzi of the gods.

Luke James, before he was sent on a mission to the Soccer Gods, was the front man for the influential pop group, Fashion. Check out his rock and roll Armageddon memoir that took Fashion on an American tour with The Police.

Socrates Remembered

Socrates, the great Brazilian soccer maverick, has died at age 57. Those who saw him play were moved by his style. He glided over the grass, his intelligence working the angles, carving space, inspirational and beautiful. He was unlike the other midfield maestro of his era – Maradona. The Argentine was a short squat explosive; Socrates embodied elegance and poise, something special, the man with the golden heel. In the Beautiful Game, Socrates was the Beautiful Player.

Soccer was art to Socrates, it was never about winning and losing, “victory breeds conformity,” he said. He possessed contradiction, conflicted like so many great artists. He was a rarity amongst the soccer professional; an intellectual and writer, a qualified medical doctor, smoking packs of cigarettes each day during his playing years. His demon was the drink, so often the hemlock of the visionary. It helped kill him, and his reputation suffered, “They don’t want me to drink, smoke or think?” he said, “Well, I drink, smoke and think.” Off the field, he was an advocate for Brazilian democracy playing his part in the country’s democratic renaissance as it emerged from military rule.

His philosophical name was a perfect fit. He asked many questions of opponents and they rarely had an answer when he was in full flight. He captained Brazil in the 1982 World Cup Finals in Spain, now acknowledged as the best team never to win the tournament. Arguably, Brazil ’82 were the best Brazilian squad of all-time. He wished for Brazilian football to return to it golden era of flair and freedom. He had little patience for the modern game’s tactical methods, dull and bureaucratic, players hampered in confining roles. Socrates was a man who stood for freedom of expression, on and off the field. When will we see his likes again?

Enjoy this short clip of Socrates scoring against the Soviet Union at the World Cup in 1982.

And the wisdom of the man can be found here.

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