When I usually drive into a sporting event, I can easily tell the team alliances by the vanity plates and rear-windshield stickers. But it's harder to suss out Team America and Team Chivas on the slow crawl toward Sam Boyd Stadium last night, in advance of the Las Vegas stop of the El Super Clasico exhibition tour, until passengers start vacating out of their temporarily parked cars on Russell Road, emerging with giant flags and colored faces. Sitting in traffic, I make some mental note about war paint.
Twenty minutes later, that thought became prescient, when a slew of blaring first-responder vehicles storm the front Sam Boyd lot and halt the stream of cars into the complex. I'm literally three vehicles away from turning into that first lot, but obstructed from whatever boisterous activity is happening there. I see some colored smoke. I'd find out later that it was a giant, brutal fracas between the Club America and C.D. Guadalajara (Chivas) fan clubs.
At the time, talk radio was transmitting nothing but political rants; my weak espanol hindered my translation of Spanish-language broadcasts; and bad cell service meant I wasn't getting current tweets. Worse, the parking attendants and authories were giving misinformation.
So, after a half-hour parked at the intersection of Russell and Broadbent, I'm told to flip a bitch and go back out to Boulder Highway. My journalistic protestations make no difference. “The game is cancelled,” says the testy cop, as I point at throngs of undeterred futbol fans pilgrimaging toward Sam Boyd from whatever surely distant parking space they came from.
Frustrated, I drive away, eventually parking at a CVS near Sam’s Town so I could text my photographer and ring the guy I’ve been seeing — we’ll call him Nico. He left for the game much later, but he says his car is close and, undeterred himself, excitedly suggests I try another way. I then scour my phone's e-mail for an update from event publicity regarding the status of the game — but nada. I want to retreat, but Nico's excitement and traffic headway makes me think I'll be missing out if I give up.
So I reluctantly take Tropicana eastward until it curves and turns into Broadbent, wait out the backed-up traffic, park in a dusty rear Sam Boyd lot, dodge about a thousand unlicensed team shirt and flag vendors impartial to everything but cash, and finally enter the stadium just as the second half starts.
The audience is hearty yet sparse — official attendance was 14,600 — but everyone, and I mean everyone, is standing. No one sits. This is definitely not futbol Americano. I hear alternating chants of “Chivas!” and “America!” and, after nearly every pass of the ball, shouts of “Ole!”
Maybe it’s just the brightness of their yellow garb, but the Club America fanbase stands out, especially where there’s huge groups of them, as was the case in the south endzone. The America devotees there look like a squad of student diehards at a college game. They jump up and down in unison, wave pompoms, and hold up bench-spanning banners, which are different than the ones they've hung from the front guardrail of section. They've also brought drums. And smoke bombs.
Apparently, I’ve missed the on-field brawl that sent four players back to the bench. But I’m there for the moment that counts: With two minutes to go, Giovani Casillas of Chivas kicks the ball into the Club America goal. Cue pandemonium. The Chivas corner of the stadium explodes in a sustained flurry of large confetti and a series of flares and pyro sent out from the fucking stands. Beer cans also arc over and into the crowd; the field becomes strewn with Budweisers, prompting a clean-up crew to come.
And then come the fans: First four of them, gleefully doing figure-eights on the field, soon joined by a few hundred more. Game over. The event staff just stands by; only a security team working a midnight Black Friday Wal-Mart sale could look more helpless.
Which sucks for the fans in Chivas jerseys getting the snot and other bodily fluids beaten out of them by Club America fans, especially at the south endzone, where multiple brawls take place. One dude gets absolutely pummeled by a yellow mob and has to be rescued and carried off by Metro. The press stares from high above in awe, occasionally taking photos. You can see the dread and resignation on the faces of the promoters and public relations reps. There's no spinning this. Later, Ricardo Pelaez, president of Club America, would tell the Review Journal that "nothing good came out of this..."
After having seen enough, I start packing up my journo tech, when Nico texts me an order to come down to the north goal net on the field. I can't believe what I'm reading, but sure enough, there he is — waving at me, in fact. I’m equally embarrassed, proud and scared for him. He rooted for Chivas, though thankfully, he's dressed neutrally.
So I stay put. I don’t want to share the road with the drunks, much less join the fray on-field. The field and the bleachers eventually clear out, with some motivation from the cops, and I begin my exit. During my long trek to the car, attendees linger everywhere, but so do an army of police officers. Some fans try to talk to and take pictures of them, but this is not Electric Daisy carnival, and as such, they are sternly implored to exit the premises immediately. As I pass a Club America fan bus, someone inadvertently blows their horn in my ear, which almost eclipses a My Bloody Valentine concert as the loudest thing I’ve ever heard. I can't get back into the city quick enough.
Back at Nico’s, there’s already open pizza boxes in my face and Dos Equis in my hand. I show everyone the headlines from the daily papers' online reports, but those of Latino descent in the room roll their eyes or yell out charges of racism. “They’re only making a big deal about this because we're Mexican,” one girl says. “Fights at games happen all the time.”
Punches are thrown at sporting events, yes. And soccer hooliganism might be customary in Mexico, or South American, or in the lily-white U.K. for that matter, but it's far from common here — certainly not the bloodshed variety, where cops are on the receiving end, too. The last major soccer game occured here without a hitch — so what happened? My culturally naive take: Mix a notoriously intense rivalry that has nothing on the Yanks and the Red Sox, and thousands drinking alcohol in nearly triple-digit weather.
But something else resonates with me, as I sip my beer and reflect on the night's events that didn't go horribly awry. I wish I had been at Sam Boyd to see the game's first half, if only because it’s so rare to see people get this worked up, this passionate about anything in Las Vegas. We obviously don't have many chances to do so with regards to sports. And even in the big city where I come from, the baseball fans famously leave during the seventh-inning stretch and the football fans screamed to a sigh when they lost both their NFL teams. But Mexican soccer fans fill their hearts with their team alliances, and when they're peacefully but spiritedly doing so, it's revelatory and thrilling to watch, especially for a gringo like me.
In between instances of extreme and unfortunate hooliganism I can't condone, I saw a real-life version of Friday Night Lights play out last night over an exhibition game that technically meant nothing — but symbolically meant everything. A shame a bunch of knuckleheads have made it improbable, if impossible, for us to witness it again.