Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Thursday, July 11, 2013 | 2 a.m.
Before the opening whistle of the July 3 El Super Clasico exhibition match between Mexican soccer league rivals Club America and Chivas of Guadalajara, the game had already been tarnished.
An hour before the start of the game at Sam Boyd Stadium, a crowd of more than 100 America fans surrounded a bus of Chivas fans. A brawl broke out. Rocks and bottles flew. Metro Police reported that by the time order was restored, six people were sent to the hospital.
The chaos didn’t end there, either. Fireworks went off in the stands. The teams got into a bench-clearing brawl resulting in four ejections. As the game neared the end, a fight erupted among spectators who’d spilled out of the stands. In a sequence captured on still images and video, one fan was punched and kicked in the face, leaving him bloodied, unconscious and face down on the field.
Even as the man was being placed on a gurney and removed from the stadium, questions were arising about the security measures that had been in place at Sam Boyd. Those questions intensified as more details emerged, including that fans had managed to smuggle bottles of alcohol past gate security.
In Mexico, a recent rash of violent incidents at soccer games has federal officials considering significantly tighter security measures.
But in Las Vegas, security officials didn’t check with their counterparts in Mexico when planning for El Super Clasico. Instead, they established a security force similar to the one they had in place for a 2012 exhibition involving two other teams.
But that was a different game. It didn’t involve two heated rivals. It didn’t even involve two teams from the same league. It was a true “friendly,” a soccer term for true exhibition.
Chivas-America was a “friendly” in name only.
After a particularly troublesome season that saw several incidents of violence, including brawls started by fans from Chivas and Club America, the two teams brought their decades-old rivalry to Las Vegas, where handling rowdy, and sometimes out-of-control, soccer crowds is not the norm.
At the end, Las Vegas’ El Super Clasico became a Super Catastrophe.
Mexico confronts fan clashes
The review of security procedures at Mexico soccer stadiums started last year, and experts from England, schooled in reining in the dangerous actions of hooligans, toured Mexico’s stadiums in fall 2012 before issuing an assessment.
Greg Gillin and Patrick Carr, two security experts who work with the English Premier League, attended several games and offered a well-publicized report on Mexican security at sporting events. The two experts said they observed no serious incidents at the games they attended, and even marveled at how some opposing fans sat together without incident. However, they emphasized the importance of team officials, stadium officials and local governments working together to create a safe environment where troublemakers are held accountable.
“First and foremost, there must be a framework that allows all of the key stakeholders to come together, define responsibilities and understand what changes need to be made in the stadiums, outside the stadiums, within the clubs and with the communication from clubs to the fans so we can improve the landscape of football,” Gillin said in a Mexican TV interview.
Multiple incidents of violence at different Mexican stadiums in the first three months of 2013, however, made the issue more urgent. According to news reports from Mexico, on Feb. 24, fans at a Queretaro vs. Atlas game started fighting in the stands and the riot police were called in to break up brawls outside the stadium. On Feb. 25 in Guadalajara, Chivas fans reportedly attacked between 50 and 60 of the buses carrying fans from the visiting team Leon. Two days later, fans of Club America started a fight at a Feb. 27 game with Neza Football Club, using pieces of the fence used to separate opposing fans as weapons.
Finally, on March 31, at the Chivas-America Super Clasico in Guadalajara, fans — some of whom had been banned from the stadium previously — fought in the parking lot.
After the run of violence at soccer matches, Mexican authorities dispatched 1,700 police officers to a subsequent Chivas game in Mexico City against Pumas, where the stadium capacity is approximately 63,000. Chivas management issued new directives, barring certain fan groups, called “porras,” that refused to sign on to a code of conduct and creating a new security team that has the authority to revoke tickets.
Now, the Mexican Congress’ sports commission is exploring the issue of violence at Mexico’s stadiums and new regulations, which could include cutting off alcohol sales earlier, testing the blood-alcohol levels of the visibly inebriated, and other measures.
The “porras” that Mexican soccer officials are grappling with are new for United States sports venues. Although there are devoted fans of many American sports teams, the U.S. is getting its first taste of the highly organized, hierarchical groups that form around soccer teams. In England, which has had very serious problems with groups of hooligans, federal laws govern soccer matches. Alcohol sales are highly restricted and fans can not only lose the right to go to games, but their passport as well.
“This kind of spectator violence is unfortunately increasing in all venues. It’s not just at UNLV’s stadium or just with soccer. It’s happening in the NFL, MLB and other sports. Fans have been killed, shot, engaged in nasty fights, pushed over railings. It’s all becoming more commonplace,” said Dane Dodd, the vice president of training for the event security company Contemporary Services Corp.
“Alcohol plays a tremendous role in incidents of violence, and is often one of the more significant contributors,” Dodd said. “It can happen anywhere. The groups are organized, they have leaders, captains and cheerleaders, and that’s the dangerous part of soccer. Instead of just one guy fighting one guy, it’s huge groups that can attack other groups.”
Dodd said he could not speak specifically to the Chivas and America match in Las Vegas, but, in general, officials in charge of stadium security are taking extensive preventive measures, including researching fan clubs, analyzing past incidents of violence and assigning team staff members as liaisons for the fan clubs. Event staffs are getting more and more training, including how to spot inebriated fans and other security threats.
In the age of services like StubHub, where tickets are easily resold, it is harder to keep opposing fans separated.
“What we are really talking about controlling are the very organized groups. If they are organized enough to be on a bus, then they should be handled in a certain way, and teams should make accommodations, as best they can, to keep opposing groups separate,” Dodd said. “Police will provide escorts for the buses, and then the teams attempt to sell blocks of tickets to keep like-minded fans together. Some stadiums have family areas, with no alcohol or cursing. Then if you know a group is coming in, maybe the team calls and offers a ‘special tailgating area’ so they stay contained and away from the other team’s fans, and who is going to turn down their own area?”
Soccer, Sam Boyd and security
Last year, the Mexican team Santos Laguna played Real Madrid in an exhibition match at Sam Boyd. The game drew 25,000 fans, many eager to see the stars from the Spanish side, and went off without incident.
According to Metro Police Officer Bill Cassell, the security presence at the Super Clasico, which drew 14,000 fans, was similar in size to the one at the Real Madrid game.
After the melee in the parking lot before the game, additional officers were called in from agencies all over the valley, and stayed for the duration of the game, Cassell said.
In all, six people reportedly went to the hospital for injuries, and nine incident reports were filed with stadium officials. No arrests have been made in connection to the fights at the game, and, because no victims have come forward, Metro Police said no investigation is underway using the numerous photo and video records of the brawls.
Officials from Club America and Chivas did not respond to questions about game security, the Las Vegas match and future exhibitions in the United States.
"Nothing good came out of this," Club America President Ricardo Pelaez told the Associated Press after the match. "Security- and soccer-wise, we're going to rethink what we do in the future real hard."
Several fans who attended the match said the atmosphere appeared volatile before the fans even made it to their seats. Fireworks, alcohol and other contraband were easily smuggled into Sam Boyd, according to several spectators. Several people who attended the game said there was no attempt to get opposing fans to enter or exit through different gates. Stadium officials said buses were being directed to different gates until the pre-game fight led to road closures.
“When we got to the stadium, the big fight in the parking lot was going on and helicopters were flying overhead,” said Club America fan Jose Rosas. “At the gates, security was awful. People were bringing bottles of alcohol and beer, and no one was doing pat-downs. It was just check your ticket and you’re in.”
Those bottles became projectile weapons at the end of the game, when several fights broke out around the stadium, including on the field.
“The cops are good people, but I think they were too soft at first and people took advantage. I’m not sure if they were totally prepared for what they saw. The fans took advantage once control started to slip, and people were even throwing things at the cops who were trying to keep people safe,” Rosas said. “I’m embarrassed by the fans.”
Latin Sports, the game’s promoter, leased Sam Boyd Stadium and Thomas & Mack management, which operates the stadium, was in charge of security. Together with Metro Police, the stadium officials worked out a security and special event logistics plan.
Preparations for last week’s game did not include coordinating with Mexican soccer officials about game-day operations. But, Thomas & Mack executive director Mike Newcomb says, that doesn’t necessarily mean they didn’t understand what to expect.
“Everybody here in the industry follows what happens with soccer,” he said. “You talk it over. You prepare and have all the staff out there expecting to deal with some incidents. All in all, nine incident (reports) isn’t that bad. There just happened to be a couple of real bad incidents everyone is talking about.”
Last week’s game was staffed by 170 part-time workers — security, ushers, ticket takers and others — and staffed by 35 to 40 police officers. After the pregame fight, the number of police — from Metro, Henderson and UNLV — nearly tripled. Yet fans cascaded onto the field toward the end of the game, facing little resistance.
“We have to adapt and make some changes,” Newcomb said. “We don’t want you leery of bringing your family out. We are always looking to learn and make changes.”
The officials get an immediate test of their new strategies as another exhibition soccer game is scheduled for Saturday at Sam Boyd, this time between Mexico’s Monarcas Morelia against El Salvador’s Luis Angel Firpo.
Saturday’s tightened security will include 100 part-time workers and 50 police officers. That is for an expected 3,000 fans. Each officer costs $85 to $90 per hour, a fee the Thomas & Mack management say they are happy to absorb as a precaution.
That is about one officer for every 60 fans, far beyond a Clark County ordinance that requires one officer for every 500 fans.
Newcomb added that security officers would be thoroughly searching belongings and conducting pat-downs.
“We met with (UNLV) police and Metro and rehashed what happened and what we can do better,” Newcomb said. “This Saturday, we agreed on more of a police presence. It is the right thing to do. We need to make a statement.”
Few of the fans who attended the Las Vegas “Super Clasico” said the violence would deter them from going to future soccer matches at Sam Boyd. Most of those interviewed assigned a small portion of the blame on what they saw as lax security, and the majority of blame was cast upon a “few bad apples.”
Jandery Vargas, a Chivas fan who attended the game with her boyfriend, said many of the organized groups of fans came from California and Arizona and were not reflective of the fans of Mexican soccer. A handful of fans “just look for fights,” she said.
“I’ve been to Super Clasicos in Guadalajara,” Vargas said. “So, I was ready for the atmosphere, but not in that magnitude. You can expect fights in the parking lot at these games, but the way the game ended with fans fighting on the field, that was worse than normal. Most of the fans were good, but a few people wanted to start trouble and were drunk before they even got to their seats. Sure, more security would have helped, but whenever you have that many people in one place, trouble can occur.”
Sun Sports Editor Ray Brewer contributed to this report.