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Organizers Prepare For Soccer Violence, But Don’t Expect It

May 30, 1996

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) _ Mixed in with the chanting, flag-waving soccer faithful in the stands at this summer’s Olympic soccer games will be an impressive law enforcement presence, thoroughly trained and equipped to quell violence that has tainted the sport’s image.

No one expects any of the disastrous riots that have struck in places like England or Brazil. No one wants to be caught off-guard, either.

``Plans are in place, and plans are being practiced,″ said Dean De Jong, head of security for the South Florida Soccer Organizing Committee, which is hosting quarterfinal soccer competition at Miami’s Orange Bowl. ``My saying is, `Prepare for the worst and hope for the best. Always, always, always.‴

Quarterfinal rounds will be held from July 20-28 in Miami, Orlando, Birmingham and Washington, D.C. The medal round will be played in Athens, Ga.

While precautions are being taken, organizers say they have several factors on their side.

For one, Olympic competition is not the cutthroat brand of soccer that typically results in violence. Each team is allowed only three players over 23 years old, which means these are not the world’s best soccer players.

Experts say that a much greater threat for violence exists at the European championships in England next month.

``We look at the Olympics as a big deal,″ said Adam Zand, a soccer expert in the Center for the Study of Sports in Society at Northeastern University. ``As a soccer fan, I’ll watch the (Olympic) soccer competition, but the big event this summer is definitely in Europe.″

Still, a game that has been romanticized as an intricate test of speed, endurance and strategy also carries an unfortunate, frightening tradition of senseless violence and death.

The darkest day came in 1985, when 39 people were killed in a soccer riot in Brussels. It was the worst fan violence tragedy in history.

Last year, fans were killed in Italy, France and England, and English fans rioted in Dublin, forcing the cancellation of an exhibition game. In Belgium, authorities deported some 400 English fans during the European Cup.

It got so bad that Pele, the crown prince of one of the world’s most popular sports, pleaded with fans to end the violence that was wrecking his beloved sport in his homeland.

Olympic organizers say that ``hooliganism″ _ as soccer violence is called _ will not be a factor at the Games.

``It’s not like we don’t look into who’s who and who’s coming, but quite frankly it’s overblown,″ De Jong said. ``A full-scale American football game or college football game certainly has all the problems of a soccer match.″

The United States did have a virtually spotless security record when it hosted the World Cup in 1994. Zand said local police departments were assisted by state authorities and the FBI, which carried out intelligence missions to keep troublemakers out of the country and away from World Cup venues. Stadiums also were equipped with high-tech surveillance cameras that were able to focus in on an individual seat, Zand said.

``I went to every game (at Foxboro Stadium near Boston), and I didn’t see anything,″ Zand said. ``And I grew up in England, so I know soccer violence when I see it.″

Charles Edwards, security director for Olympic soccer in Orlando, said officers will have riot gear at their disposal. Raul Martinez, assistant chief of the Miami Police Department, said at least 150 officers will be on hand each day at the Orange Bowl. Nearby, a command center filled with local, state and federal law enforcement agents will be ready to spring to action.

Lyle Mitchell, a retired police officer and sheriff’s deputy who is in charge of Olympic security in Birmingham, said he has received favorable reports from federal authorities on the type of fans who will be watching the games at Legion Field.

``We don’t have any outstanding concerns about hooliganism in the stands,″ Mitchell said. ``We don’t have any intelligence that there will be any problems along those lines.″

The people responsible for keeping the games safe say soccer is not even their biggest fear. The haunting memory of 11 Israeli Olympians who were killed in a terrorist attack at the 1972 Summer Games hangs over every Olympic event.

``Nobody wants another Munich,″ Zand said. ``Nobody wants that to happen in their city.″

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