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WORLD CUP USA '94 : A Deadly Twist to Familiar Theme : Violence: It has long been a factor among fans of the sport, but a murder adds a chilling dimension to the problem.

July 03, 1994|JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The debate about soccer violence will no doubt begin anew. What the murder of Andres Escobar does is change the pitch of the discussion. Violence in the name of soccer has been turned inward, with fans killing themselves after losses. Soccer violence has been turned outward in the form of rampages and rioting.

This is different. This is not about hooligans. Hooligans have little to do with the game of soccer and often care not if the team they are supporting has won or lost; they care about smashing a beer bottle over someone's head. A soccer match merely provides the venue.

A line has been crossed. Some inviolable border had been breached when fans attack players and take out their frustrations in a pound of flesh. What can drive people to harm themselves and others because a soccer team has lost a game? It is an ineffable passion.

The general secretary of FIFA observed Saturday that the game has two faces. Indeed, it does. One, that FIFA shows to the world and that is showcased in the World Cup. That face bears a joyous smile. Soccer has the facility to raise the life of a fan. It gives something to a person who has nothing. If my team wins, I win. I am elevated.

This is the emotion behind the ecstasy of victory. The sometimes suffocating identification of fans with teams and players can produce euphoria, and it can also, increasingly, engender outrage and brutal lashing out.

This is the other face, of soccer and sport.

In some countries, soccer serves to fill the gaping chasm between the haves and the never-haves. Soccer, the people's sport, is accessible and identifiable and very much belongs to the underclasses of these places. Because they have nothing else, the soccer victories carry more emotional weight, they affect fans in a way that cannot be comprehended by a person whose life includes the daily victory of a home and a job and available food.

Three soccer fans died of "shock" in Nigeria after that country beat Angola in a World Cup qualifying match in 1989.

If a victory is imbued with such import, what can a loss mean? To many Bolivian fans, their team's exit in the first round of this World Cup was affirmation that in the eyes of the world they are a small landlocked country that supplies the raw material for the Colombian drug trade. Nothing more.

What made a soccer fan in Tegucigalpa shoot himself in the head after Yugoslavia scored the winning goal that eliminated Honduras from the 1982 World Cup? Why did a woman kill herself after Cameroon was knocked out of the 1990 World Cup? Why do fans jump out of buildings and swallow pills and suffer so?

Nationalism plays a part. A country's writers and poets and scientists and artists and actors are available on the international scene, but they don't compete. They don't represent their nations when they achieve, they represent themselves. Only athletes are followed around by a flag, like so much diplomatic baggage.

It doesn't take long to accumulate an overflowing file filled with accounts of soccer violence.

--Police use tear gas to disperse 200 fans who are rioting at the training site of the Italian club, AS Roma, after the team 's sixth loss of the season.

--A fight between rival fans at a soccer match in Turkey leaves 10 dead and 200 injured.

--In Lima, Peru, fans riot over a disallowed goal during an Olympic qualifying match. In the aftermath, 320 people are dead, more than 1,000 are injured and martial law is declared for 30 days.

--In Nanchong, China, a riot breaks out at a club match in protest over a referee's call. Home fans stone police and visiting players. Fans loot a hotel and the police station. There are 135 injured.

--Fans rampage after West Germany defeats England in the semifinal of the 1990 World Cup. Fighting breaks out in 29 cities in England. In Brighton, English youths chase German students and tourists. More than 300 students are locked in a nightclub by authorities for their safety. In London, German-made cars are damaged. In Turin, a 23-year-old German is stabbed in the back.

All of which caused an Italian police captain to say: "I've been in Milan for four years and I've never seen such violence. I can understand political violence and demonstrations against specific causes, but we just can't understand this sort of senseless fighting."

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