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Notes from the World Cup: Security 1, Soccer 0

Convoy of police vehicles.

A cavalcade of German police escorts the U.S. soccer team through downtown Hamburg.

The German woman on the street in Hamburg assumed some important dignitary was in town, perhaps a head of state. Why else would police have blocked off one of the city's main avenues? Why else would a cavalcade of security vans with their lights flashing be escorting a bus with tinted windows? As the procession crawled slowly through a downtown shopping district, motorcycle cops zipped about like hornets, scouting ahead then circling back.

"Who is in town?" the woman asked me as we stood in a large crowd watching the procession pass.

"The Americans," I said.

"The Americans? Which Americans?"

"The Americans that play soccer," I said. "The U.S. team, here for the World Cup."

She gave me a confused look. I wasn't sure whether it was due to the heavy security or whether she simply didn't know that Americans played soccer. Either way, she and hundreds of others were forced to wait for 15 minutes in the hot sun until the 23 American players, coaches and assistants had moved safely past.

A questioner asked about the heavy security -- something no other team even came close to having. The reporter wanted to know if the protective measures were having a negative effect on the U.S. players.

Just minutes earlier the U.S. team had been welcomed by Hamburg's mayor at a ceremony that only the highly accredited could get into. It was the eve of the World Cup kick off and at a follow-up press conference there was lots of talk about confidence and maturity on the squad. At one point a questioner asked about the heavy security -- something no other team even came close to having. The reporter wanted to know if the protective measures were having a negative effect on the players. The U.S. coach Bruce Arena fielded the question. "Security doesn't bother us," he said. "In fact it makes us comfortable. It makes us feel safe and our families safe." Neither of the two players at the press showing offered comment.

The U.S. team has since been handily eliminated from the 2006 World Cup. America played poorly. In each game it was clear that the U.S.'s opponents were simply more skilled. But if you compare this U.S. squad to the one that reached the World Cup quarter finals in Korea four years ago, you find that another element besides skill was missing: confidence. While the 2006 team couldn't have been more secure off the field, it couldn't have been more insecure on it.

In contrast, U.S. fans were brave -- sometimes brazenly, even embarrassingly so. I had the good fortune to road trip with one such fan from Hamburg to Gelsenkirchen to catch the U.S. opener against the Czech Republic. Like thousands of other Americans, Colin Lamont had flown in from the states without police escort. When he walked through the streets of Germany, he was not flanked by thick-necked men with sunglasses and sports coats bulging with concealed weapons. Colin was just Colin, a fan, no more no less. He loves soccer for its simplicity -- 22 men, two goals, one ball. Like many Americans he played soccer as a kid and has never lost interest. On the contrary, the 36-year-old technology executive, currently living in Seattle, takes as much vacation as he can each year to catch U.S. soccer matches. This was to be his second World Cup tour.

Colorful U.S. fans gather before the opening match.

American fans gather before the World Cup opening match against the Czech Republic. The U.S. would lose the game, 3 to 0.

You might argue that Colin wouldn't need the same security as the U.S. players since he didn't stand out in the same way. Think again. Colin and a small group of U.S. soccer maniacs did everything in their power to call attention to themselves. They painted their faces red white and blue and sang drunken, sometimes belligerent chants about American superiority. In Gelsenkirchen, a group of more radical fans sat at a crowded outdoor bar wearing U.S. team jerseys, draped in American flags, taunting Mexican fans at a nearby table. They jeered the Iranian national team on a big screen TV with bad jokes about the current nuclear stand off.

They were surrounded by fans from around the world who lanced them with disdainful glares. Later some Mexicans confided angrily to me that if the U.S. were to play Mexico in a subsequent round, the match would be as much about politics as sports. If ever there was a target for anti-American ire I was witnessing it, right out in the open on a cobblestone German lane. But the U.S. fans weren't about to roll over and play politically correct. World Cup Soccer is about pushing the limits, on and off the field.

I admit, I get a little nervous around American soccer fans, and with good reason. On our road trip to Gelsenkirchen, Colin and I were remembering the last time we'd seen each other -- Mexico City, June 2001.

I admit I was a little nervous. I get that way around American soccer fans, and with good reason. On our road trip to Gelsenkirchen, Colin and I were remembering the last time we'd seen each other. It was Mexico City, June 2001. The U.S. was playing arch-rival Mexico on its home turf, in the daunting, 100,000-seat Azteca Stadium. A modest sized group of demented American cheerleaders had come down for the game. I went to cover it -- and them -- for National Public Radio.

We met up at a cluster of seats right behind one of the goals just before the opening whistle. It was easy to find the designated U.S. area - it was the only section featuring bearded Uncle Sams.

My first thought was, these guys have cojones. Anti-American sentiment is so intense in Mexico you could cook tacos on it. During my four years living there I generally kept a much lower profile than these die-hard soccer nuts. I can say with confidence that I did not once go out to dinner draped in an American flag.

During the game Mexicans and Americans alike seemed to focus on the play. But when the final whistle blew things changed. First Mexican fans began chanting at us. Something like, Gringos Go Home, or, Gringos, You Stole Half Our Country. A lone beer rained down on our heads from the mezzanine above. Then came another. Before I knew what was happening, the Mexicans were bombarding us with cups and napkins and food and more beer. It was literally raining garbage on our heads as an estimated 110,000 of our neighbors vented 500 years of pent up frustration against us.

U.S. fans at an outdoor cafe in Germany.

Colin (in the red baseball cap), who traveled from Seattle to support the U.S team, sits with other diehard fans at a German outdoor cafe.

But I didn't really start to feel scared until the first bag of urine fell. It hit a U.S. fan on the back, rupturing and soaking him and several others. The crowd roared with malicious delight. Suddenly more bags of urine -- and feces -- began cascading down on us, exploding like water balloons on the Fourth of July.

I remember thinking at one point, "What an ingenious weapon -- so easy to smuggle in past the security guards!" Sure, you have to suffer the embarrassment of going to the bathroom in the bleachers. But the reward -- a direct hit on an American below -- must have more than made up for it.

The intrepid U.S. fans, many of them laughing, took cover under a giant U.S. flag. A couple of burning phosphorous flairs landed atop it and burned right through, but it held. I was under that flag. I was not smiling. At one point I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was a Mexican teenager. He had seen my headphones and microphone and wanted to say something.

I followed him a few feet out from under the flag and started rolling tape. "You recording?" he asked. I nodded. He said he was so ashamed of how his countrymen were behaving. He said he wanted Americans to know that not all Mexicans dreamed of pelting us with excrement. I was about to respond with something like, "That's very reassuring," when another bag of urine whistled past my cheek and pegged the Mexican square in the chest. The impact nearly knocked him down. I felt so terribly for him -- that is, until he started screaming up at the balcony above us.

"Morons!"he yelled. "You missed the target!" To remove any doubt as to who the target was, the kid was pointing furiously at me. It had all been a set up.

"Morons!" he yelled. "You missed the target!" To remove any doubt as to who the target was, the kid was pointing furiously at me. It had all been a set up.

In the end, riot police stepped in and had to evacuate the entire stadium, except for us. Then they escorted us to busses waiting outside. On the ride back into town I seemed to be the only one shaken by the experience. One woman next to me slapped me on the back, a kind of cheer-the-hell-up-or-get-off-the-pot gesture.

"Come on!" she chirped, "It's just part of the game!"

Riding with Colin to Gelsenkirchen I asked him if he'd been at all nervous that day.

"Not even slightly," he said. And I believed him. He pointed out that U.S. soccer fans might get obnoxious sometimes, but none has ever been involved in the kind of violent soccer hooliganism that makes the European news almost nightly. In the states after all it's the athletes who tend to fight, not the fans. Think bench-clearing baseball brawls or bloody ice-hockey fisticuffs. Colin seemed to be saying that U.S. soccer fans' aversion to physical aggression serves to insulate them from violent attacks by others.

That might be wishful thinking, but the fact is that American fans traveled to World Cup 2006 with zero security -- exposing themselves to all manner of danger via their loud-mouthed yet non-violent fanaticism -- and nothing happened. In contrast U.S. players, protected like dignitaries inside Baghdad's Green Zone, took zero risks either off or on the playing field. I would like to suggest that the American team travel without security for the next World Cup. That way they might reconnect with the most important sports tournament in the world. But I can't. In today's world, the team really could be targeted by someone intent on striking out at Americans. So for the foreseeable future, one of the weakest teams in the world will continue to be isolated by security worthy of its opposite, a soccer super-power.


Based in Barcelona, Gerry Hadden is a correspondent for Public Radio International's The World. You can listen to his recent radio reports from the 2006 World Cup in Germany on The World's Web site.

REACTIONS

Jeff van Hoy - Los Angeles, CA
Having planned the trip for a year and a half and dreamed about it since France '98, I was confused on my 24-day World Cup tour in Germany when people would say, "But football in America, it's not so big, right?" Bewildered, I'd reply, "Well you're talking to someone who flew over 5,000 miles for this tournament, so I guess you're asking the wrong person!"I felt no danger as I criss-crossed Germany three times with an unlimited DB pass, but then I had spent the previous months trying to grasp a working knowledge of the German language and only cheered for the US on my way to, at, or after a match...There certainly were the brash, arrogant fans, I'm sure, of whom you speak, but most of us were merely happy to be there. I had wonderful hospitality extended everywhere I turned and accepted a place to crash with a Dutch fan (my surrogate team) I met who lived in Kaiserslautern. As a flight attendant, he had a professional disdain for Americans, but was happy to learn from this tournament that they're not all like that.I've yet to find anyone who wasn't disappointed with the U.S. team's cumulative play... Still, the fact that we redeemed ourselves in the second match and played well enough to win the third had we been more tenacious on offense or lucky on defense has me questioning those who feel we had no business being there. (The first match was complete rubbish, no argument there.) Constistent offensive threats are always tricky to come by -- ust ask England . . . or Holland . . . or Spain, for that matter.

Arturo - Chicago, IL
Sure there is a political overtone when it comes to American soccer fans in Mexico for a match. Although my lineage goes back and forth for many generations between the two countries, I would probably sit with the fans in the Mexico section. Those sitting in the American cheering section are good soccer fans. They may be unfairly treated, but they are still good soccer fans.

montgomery, alabama
I read your essay with interest, particularly about the incident at the U.S- Mexico game. I found the comment regarding Mexico's seething anti-Americanism rather surprising and ironic since they seem hell-bent on entering the U.S by the millions, illegally. Say what you want but the U.S has the longest immigration lines in the world and probably the largest number of illegal immigrants. Immigration is the sincerest form of flattery and says alot about our great nation. LOVE it or Leave it!!

german linqui - reno, nevada
as a "futbol" fan i do understand..but that's part of this game called football...it's a passion in other countries even people die of a heart attack or suicide..just because his team lost the championship....Have you read about the Maracanaso...what about the conflilct between El Salvador and Honduras in 1970..part of it was because of the final match for the 1970 world cup in Mexico....With the U.S. team it will always be a political issue not matter where they're gonna play...It's only a tournament every 4 years...but what a tournament..futbol is passion!!! if u don't believe me see the argentinians and the brazilians...the italians and the germans..what about the hooligans..passion it is in our hearts ..fans and players alike!!!!!

(anonymous)
When a U.S. citizen attends a U.S.-Mexico game in Azteca stadium, he or she needs to be ready for anything. I guess you learned your lesson!! The U.S. 2006 squad played like they might have played 12 or 16 years ago... uninspiring, impotent soccer--FIFA world rankings are a complete joke.