When Soccer Turns Deadly

Soccer hooligans the world over (courtesy of Pattaya Daily News)

Soccer—or football, as it is known to nearly everyone but Americans—is not an easy sport. It takes speed, skill, endurance and a strong sense of teamwork. I know because for years during my youth, I participated in recreational soccer leagues in my hometown. And though I always worked well as part of a team, I must admit that some of those other skills just weren’t there. This never caused me any problems because ultimately, I was only there to have some fun. Losing didn’t even bother me that much because deep down, I knew that I would never be a professional soccer player.

This didn’t stop me from becoming a huge fan of the sport, though. My father and everyone on his side of the family came from Argentina, a country known for its world-class soccer. Players like Diego Maradona, Jorge Crespo, Lionel Messi, Gabriel Batistuta and Daniel Passarella helped Argentina win fourteen Copa America titles, several Olympic titles and two World Cup championships, including the 1986 final where Maradona scored the infamous “Hand of God” goal to push his team past West Germany by a score of 3-2.

Watch any World Cup soccer coverage and undoubtedly someone will mention this fortunate event… fortunate for Argentina, I mean. The Germans likely cringe every time they think of it.

Maradona and the infamous “Hand of God” (courtesy of Bongarts/Getty Images)

Needless to say, soccer is now one of my favorite sports. I play it with friends or family members from time to time—usually at a family reunion, especially during visits to South America—but my favorite is watching it on television, specifically during the World Cup. I actually attended a few games when the WC was held in the U.S. back in 1994. A buddy and I drove down to Orlando, Florida and were lucky enough to watch the Netherlands and Morocco face off at the Citrus Bowl. We sat amidst a colorful crowd of Moroccan fans, cheered them on as we drank paper cups of beer, and consoled our new friends when the Dutch defeated them 2-1 in their final game of the tournament.

It was awesome. And I have loved soccer—pardon me, football—ever since. Hell, I even pull for the U.S. national team despite the sport never really gaining popularity here. Once we take it more seriously, though, I’m hoping we’ll be much more competitive.

Unfortunately—and like most other sports (if not all of them)—soccer has a dark side. The most obvious example of this is football hooliganism—the tendency for some soccer fans to behave in unruly, destructive and even violent ways. Sometimes this springs from a loss by someone’s favorite team and sometimes it results from little more than a rivalry. Whatever the reason, hooliganism has resulted in countless injuries and, in some cases, death. And in the end, it’s the fans that pay the price.

Of course, it isn’t just the fans that fall victim to soccer-related violence. Things can be just as dangerous for players and even referees. Just look at the case of Ricardo Portillo from earlier this year.

On April 27th, Portillo was refereeing a game for Fut International, a soccer league for Hispanic children in Taylorsville, a suburb of Salt Lake City, Utah. At one point, he issued a yellow card to a 17-year-old player—citing him for an on-field infraction—and told the young man he would be ejected from the game if he received a red card for a second penalty.

Under normal circumstances, the presenting of a yellow card draws ire from players and fans, but it is normally expressed by a lot of screaming, flailing about and gesturing. Sadly, that was not the case for Portillo.

Ricardo Portillo (courtesy of AP)

Rather than arguing with the referee for a bad call, the young soccer player suddenly turned around and punched Portillo in the face. Initially, his injuries were thought to be minor, but that changed drastically when he went to the hospital later. Doctors discovered that Portillo had serious internal head injuries. He was in critical condition for a week before finally passing away the following Saturday night.

Ricardo Portillo was 46 years old and is survived by three daughters, all of whom live in Mexico. And though the young man who struck him was originally charged with aggravated assault, Portillo’s death resulted in upgraded charges. He is now being held in a juvenile detention facility and should have his day in court soon enough.

A similar attack occurred in the Netherlands this past December when three young amateur players—a 16-year-old and two 15-year-olds—assaulted a 41-year-old volunteer linesman and basically beat him to death. All three were charged with manslaughter, assault and public violence—and they will surely spend some time in jail—but I’m sure this provides little or no comfort to the victim’s family, who must now live their lives without him.

Both of these examples of soccer violence are tragic—and I truly feel for the families of these men—but nothing shocked me more than the news that came out of northern Brazil last week. And if you have not yet heard this story, I’m sure you will find it equally disturbing.

The incident happened during a June 30th soccer match in the Brazilian village of Pius XII. Referee Jordan Silva got into an argument with Linda dos Santos Abreu, a player for whom he had issued a red card. Abreu was outraged to learn that he was being ejected from the game, so he engaged Silva in a fist fight that, moments later, turned deadly.

For some reason, Silva had a knife with him and when the fight intensified, he pulled it out and stabbed Abreu in the chest. The young player was immediately rushed to the hospital, but no one could predict what happened next.

With some help from fans, members of Abreu’s family grabbed the 20-year-old referee, tied him up and started torturing him in plain view of everyone in attendance. Rumor has it that someone caught the attack on their cell phone, but I decided not to search for it out of respect for the victims of this terrible tragedy. And in a moment, you’ll know why the word “victims” is plural in the previous sentence.

A short time after Silva’s torture began, word got back to Abreu’s family that the young man made it to the hospital, but had been pronounced dead just before arriving there. This made a bad situation even worse and, in retaliation, members of the slain player’s family stoned Silva to death. I wish I could say that this was where this terrible situation ended, but sadly that was not the case.

Jordan Silva (courtesy of Facebook)

Abreu’s family then beheaded Silva, placed his head on a pike and dismembered his body… all in the middle of a crowded soccer stadium and with hundreds—if not thousands—of witnesses, some of whom even participated in this heinous act.

Needless to say, it was not very difficult for authorities to identify the suspects, most of whom were clearly visible on recovered footage from the fateful game. To date, at least one person has been arrested in connection with Silva’s murder and a number of others are being sought. None of this changes the fact that on this particular day, two people died for nothing more than a bad call on the pitch.

Ideally, sports allow us to exercise, develop skills, compete, play, interact with others, entertain ourselves, learn about sportsmanship and, when we’re fortunate enough, win. And for those of us who prefer not to participate regularly, there are always games we can watch online, on television or in our local communities. Being a spectator can sometimes be as entertaining as being a player, believe me.

The problem is that some people obviously take sports far too seriously. I would be lying if I said that I never lost my temper because the Steelers fumbled on the goal line or the Yankees gave up the losing run in the bottom of the ninth inning. And yes, violence has erupted on occasion, which basically means that I smashed something of mine that I regretted an instant later.

What makes me different—what makes most of us different—is that I would never wait outside the stadium after a game in which an NFL referee made a bad call that cost the Steelers the game, assault the official as he left for home and murder him in cold blood. Even if he pulled a knife and stabbed one of my favorite players on the field—better yet, one of my family members—my first instinct would not be to kill him… much less to kill, behead and dismember him.

Honestly, it’s hard for me to understand what could motivate someone to commit a crime as gruesome as the one in Brazil last week. I understand that what Silva did was horrifying, and no one would expect a referee to be carrying a knife—doesn’t anyone search these people? And I definitely understand revenge. If someone killed one of my loved ones like that, I would undoubtedly fill with rage and want to strangle the life out of them with my bare hands. I just wouldn’t. If anything, I would be in the ambulance hoping that my loved one survived the deadly attack. But if they died—and even if I wanted to go back and murder the referee—I simply wouldn’t. Hell, the authorities would have the attacker in custody by then anyway.

Don’t forget what soccer is all about (courtesy of Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images AsiaPac)

I don’t know what it is about sports that seems to bring out the worst in people. And no one has ever been worse than the individuals who butchered Silva, even if he deserved to be punished for murdering Abreu. The combination of passion, anger, sorrow and loss must blend with the crowd mentality to provide the spark, but there is obviously much more to it. Otherwise, nearly every sporting event would end in tragedy. In this case, security was definitely a factor since proper screening would have prevented Silva from even having a knife in the first place. Granted, security would not have helped those referees in Utah and the Netherlands—both of whom died at the bare hands of others—but it could have saved these guys.

Sadly, none of this can explain what happened in Brazil, and I won’t even bother to try. It may always be a mystery to me since—to paraphrase The Shadow—no one knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men. What I do know, however, is this: soccer, football or whatever you want to call it is A GAME. Life will not end just because your team lost in a tie-breaker, your star player suffered a crippling injury or some referee made a bad call. If you get carded unfairly, bitch and moan with your team and accept that fact that sometimes, things just don’t go your way. Those are the breaks, people. Don’t ruin sports with bad behavior, hooliganism and violence—dismemberment included—because you win some and you lose some. Without losers, there could never be winners.

Have I used enough sports clichés, because I have a nearly endless supply over here?

Posted on July 8, 2013, in Perspectives and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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