First, police roadblocks. Then, checkpoints with we-mean-business canine units. Further on, the really impressive police show of force: a behemoth mobile police command center; scores of police in full riot gear; strategically placed armored water cannons ready for action.
With the advent of October, I attended my first ever soccer – most of the world call it football – game in South America and this popular sports event felt as if I had wandered into a field set for battle.
I know South Americans – in this case Chileans – take their football extremely seriously, but I had no idea to what extraordinary lengths the authorities go to keep a soccer match from descending into mayhem. Soccer fans in South America and Europe are notoriously passionate about their teams and sometimes that passion spirals into violence. They’ve been known to go at each other, tear apart a stadium, or even an entire city if things on the field don’t exactly go their way. And sometimes these fans of opposing teams behave more like violent gangs than plain sports fans.
So now in some cities around the world, police treat soccer matches as riots just waiting to happen. And they employ incredible measures to deter violence, steps that had I not attended the game between home team Cobreloa and visiting Universidad Catolica, I never would have imagined. The two professional Chilean teams are “Primary A” professional teams and have thousands of fans in the country.
On this particular day, the fans were mostly well-behaved. There were obscenities shouted at players and the refs, and some acted like raging lunatics, but that is fully expected at soccer games. The good behavior was largely because of the security measures put in place. For instance:
* An approximately 15-foot fence surrounds the field, and there’s a set buffer zone between the players on the field and the fans in the stand. The fence is topped by sharp spikes and barbed wire. Try scaling that, fan boy! On both sides of the fence, riot police – complete with shields – stand watch, some armed with fire extinguishers just in case Molotov cocktails start to fly.
* Caged-in stands for the fans of the visiting team. The visitors are literally in a cage, guarded by dozens of police in full riot gear. At either side of the caged stands, there are gates that are kept locked and under guard during the game. Fans of the visitors and home team are well away from each other. There is an area of the stands where no one is allowed to sit. It’s a sort of neutral zone that serves as a buffer between the two sets of fans. Opposing fans are not mixed in the stands. In other words, they are not seated next to each other, heaven’s no!, unless of course they are friends and attend the game together.
* When the game is over, fans of the visiting team must remain locked-in until the fans of the local team have all left the stadium. The home team fans are ushered out one end of the stadium and the visitors – about 20-minutes to a half-hour later – are released from the caged-in stands through an exit at the opposite end of the stadium. They leave under heavy police escort – with riot police walking in line formation, backed up by the water cannons. The two sets of fans don’t really come in contact after the game because police see to it that they remain at different ends of the stadium. Fans of the visiting team quickly load up into waiting buses and leave in those buses under police escort.
For a first-timer, watching every movement of the riot police and other security forces was as entertaining as the game itself. They take their job very seriously to ensure that there are no incidents. Several policemen are even armed with video cameras, videotaping every movement in the stands.
By the way, it was a fantastic game. The home team – Cobreloa – won by a score of 2-0. I was in the stands with the fans of the losing team. I happen to be there because a colleague with whom I attended the game, is a fan of Universidad Catolica. I would have much rather be in the stands with “Community Orange” – the Calama fans.
Still, it was a beautiful day for a soccer match and most left the stadium happy with the results.
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