Global Game, Fractured City

The Super Clasico soccer fiasco brought out our divisions. But could the sport somehow bring us together?

Among the consequences of the violence at the July 3 Super Clasico soccer game at Sam Boyd Stadium was that some of the Valley’s most vocal xenophobes were drawn online, where they aimed the full force of their disdain at the local Latino population.

Their comments below news stories about the fiasco—which put six fans in the hospital—were ignorant of the racially and ethnically agnostic dark side of soccer, where intense rivalries draw similar conflict to stadiums all over the planet, including in European capitals such as Glasgow and Prague. But they were also testimony to a stubbornly deep divide in the Valley, as Hispanics—who now represent nearly one-third of the population here—continue to be regarded as the Other.

The divide is not only cultural but geographic: Many Latinos—particularly the largest group, those of Mexican descent—have settled into the Valley’s east side. The relative isolation of the community—cut off not only by language and culture, but, in a more visible sense, by U.S. 95—has created a sort of ghetto, and an easy target for vilification.

As a father, manager and occasional player, I’ve been part of the Valley’s soccer community for nearly a decade, and I’ve continually heard such xenophobic rants on the field. It’s odd, because soccer ought to be the most multicultural of sports: Just take any freeway exit on any Saturday and head for the nearest park, and you’ll see López and Smith alike, kicking a ball across green fields.

After the violence at the Super Clasico, which featured archrivals Chivas Guadalajara and Club America, fans wondered what it meant for the future of professional soccer in Las Vegas. There has long been talk of building a stadium and attracting a Major League Soccer team (the league surpassed the NBA and the NHL in average attendance two years ago). One argument for such a Herculean task is that Las Vegas has become a multicultural metropolitan area, with hundreds of thousands of immigrants from soccer-loving countries. It’s fair to wonder whether soccer could help bridge a culturally fractured community.

Part of the problem at the Chivas-America game was the tribal nature of soccer itself, where many fans are born and die swearing allegiance to one club, with players often of one nationality, representing one spot on the globe. But MLS, founded in 1996 and composed of melting-pot teams, has so far been immune to the overwrought animosity found in traditional soccer hot beds. The question is whether such a team can bridge the cultural divide here. When I asked former Major League player and Las Vegas resident Jared Montz, he recalled the stadium full of Latino fans when the Chicago Fire played an exhibition against a Mexican team, but absent those same fans when they played regular MLS games. (That changed a little during the two years the team featured Mexican legend Cuauhtémoc Blanco.)

Maybe the change begins not with a professional franchise but with youth soccer. During the years my older son played both on suburban, mostly non-Hispanic teams and urban, mostly Hispanic teams, I heard parents and players alike engage in the same name-calling recently displayed online. But my younger son spent six years on a team that gradually grew browner, in the end a true mix, like the Valley itself.

I wound up at the Chivas-America game because a friend gave my son Dylan and me tickets that afternoon to a suite at Sam Boyd. At one point, the fish-tank-type room was filled with a family of five Mexican-Americans, another family with an Irish-immigrant dad and four white guys in their 20s. When the violence started, bringing a premature end to the game, the father of the Mexican family let loose an impromptu riff on Pancho Villa, trying to bring laughter to the ugly scene taking place.

For that moment, we were a weird melting pot of a group, united by soccer. Too bad there wasn’t much of it being played on the field below.