Should an award be created for the world's most badly-organised football tournament, 1996 Concacaf Gold Cup would be a front-runner, as Soccer America's Mike Woitalla reports
It’s immigrant-bashing season in the USA. 1994 saw the launch of ‘Operation Gatekeeper’ – a massive border patrol build-up designed to keep out those Mexicans we otherwise welcome to baby-sit our children, clean our houses, pick our fruit and go to our soccer games. 1996 is election year in the USA and the demagogues are raising the level of immigrant scape-goating to another level. The building of the ‘Tortilla Wall’ – a triple fence with razor-blade barbed wire – is part of political discourse.
On 14th January, twelve Mexican men fled the border patrol. Five were injured and one died falling over a cliff. That very day in a San Diego stadium 20 miles from the border, more than 30,000 fans paid $25 each to watch Mexico beat Guatemala in the CONCACAF Gold Cup. About half of that crowd crossed the border for the game. The rest were Guatemalan and Mexican immigrants residing in the USA. On 21st January, Mexico beat Brazil 2-0 in the final in front of 88,125 at the Los Angeles Coliseum. The vast majority of that crowd came from the Hispanic community in Los Angeles, where Spanish is spoken in one-third of households.
The Gold Cup is the equivalent of the European Championships for CONCACAF – the confederation of North and Central America and the Caribbean. In an agreement that sends Mexico and the USA to the South American Championship, Brazil were invited to play in the third Gold Cup. The USA won in 1991, Mexico in 1993, and Mexico again in 1996 because they prevailed over Brazil’s under-23 team, preparing for the Olympic tournament. The Brazilians – without child stars Juninho, Rodrigo (Bayer Leverkusen) and Roberto Carlos (Internazionale) – beat the USA 1-0 in the semi-final. And the Gold Cup was a resounding box office success because of Mexican and Salvadorean immigrants (Los Angeles has the largest Salvadorean population outside San Salvador). Tournament promoters Inter/Forever barely bothered advertising US games through English-language media.
One day before the USA opened with a 3-2 win in front of 12,425 over Trinidad & Tobago, Inter/Forever began accrediting journalists from the English-language media, having ignored them until then. The average attendance for the tournament was 31,859, but everything else about it was an antidote for all those tired of hearing about how great the USA organize sporting events. Tom Timmerman wrote in the Daily News of Los Angeles that the Gold Cup was as well organized as a bus crash. Los Angeles Spanish-language daily La Opinion ran a daily column titled, “The avalanche of Gold Cup mishaps.” Soccer America correspondent Ridge Mahoney wrote: “Riddled with incompetence, short-sightedness and outright stupidity, the Gold Cup took on the dunce cap as Southern California’s latest sporting fiasco and international soccer’s first farce of the New Year.”
But, for some reason, CONCACAF general secretary Chuck Blazer (yes, I’m afraid that is his real name) referred to the tournament as a “tremendous public success.” That’s probably because Inter/Forever, to whom CONCACAF sold the tournament rights, (incredibly, they already have the rights to the next two Gold Cups as well) could count piles of money while chaos prevailed. When English adverts finally appeared, they got the venues wrong. When a Honduran player suffered a broken tibia in their opening match with Canada, there was no stretcher and no ambulance for him. One game was underway while officials were still building the perimeter advertising. Mexico coach Bora Milutinovic was introduced by the name of his predecessor, Miguel Mejia Baron, before the Guatemala match.
The Trinidad players were the biggest losers. No bus arrived at Anaheim Stadium to pick them up after their loss to the USA. A police helicopter hovered, hitting them with a spotlight and ordering them to disperse. Fans finally gave them rides. The bus that brought them was used after the game by VIPs. Returning to their hotel, they discovered that a man posing as their team manager had been given access to their safe. A reported $50,000 in money and valuables were stolen. (This was not surprising to reporter Doug Cress, who has covered soccer games in Los Angeles since the 1980s: “The pre-game ceremony is robbing one team, the post-game ceremony is robbing the other.”)
Sam’s Army – the US national team’s fledgling supporters’ group – suffered its first major defeat when they were bombarded with cups of water and cans in the stadium and attacked outside. “The security force was more concerned with keeping our drums and banners out of the stadium than with protecting us” was the message from one ‘Sammer’ on the Internet.
The Panamanian anthem was played instead of Honduras’ before a match against Brazil and the Hondurans refused to take the field until they were able to sing it into a field worker’s walkie-talkie. That signal was somehow transmitted to Honduran TV. On the day of the final, it took two hours to drive the last three kilometres to the LA Coliseum. Some five thousand fans were stranded outside the stadium – many of them with tickets – and there were reports of counterfeit tickets. The Guatemalan team arrived only 30 minutes before their third-place match with the US.
So much for the CONCACAF general secretary’s “tremendous public success”. But perhaps there is hope, because this time, it wasn’t just the fans who got screwed. UEFA president Lennart Johansson was stranded at his hotel because his limo driver never showed. The head of the Guatemalan federation was not allowed in his own team’s locker room after their loss to Mexico because he didn’t have a credential. US Soccer Federation president Alan Rothenberg and secretary general Hank Steinbrecher – who, by the way, took no responsibility for this debacle – were locked out of the media/VIP area before the final by a fire marshall who insisted two others must leave before they could enter.
Inter/Forever, a Miami-based subsidiary of Brazilian media company Traffic, was taking its first shot at running a tournament. Previously, it specialized in making it as costly as possible to watch the game on television. US fans – practically giddy about the national team since last year’s US Cup and Copa America success – were shut out from Gold Cup broadcasts unless they had access to the rare DirecTV satellite dishes. Even then, an extra fee was required. About 300 bars around the country broadcast games for $10 to $20.
One such bar, Paseo Chapin in Los Angeles, was the site of a shooting. It happened when the picture was lost and patrons only heard on the audio feed that Mexico had scored. One man was injured in bottle-throwing, and another was killed by the subsequent gunfire. Fortunately, the detective in charge of the investigation was Andy Cicoria, a soccer fan raised in Italy. He convinced US media – always hungry for soccer-violence stories – that the dreaded hooliganism hadn’t made it to US shores. “It didn’t happen because of a soccer game,” he said. “This happened because the assholes here are violent.”
Cicoria’s district is ten square kilometres and led LA in murders last year with 124. Cicoria told American reporters that soccer is “a fine sport, a great game.” It has to be if it can continue to survive the kind of greed-inspired incompetence that prevailed at the Gold Cup. Unfortunately, mere survival is what soccer in the USA is all about.
From WSC 109 March 1996. What was happening this month