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What if ... You Get Caught In a Soccer Riot at the #WorldCup

June 4, 2014

To avoid scenes like this, know where the high-risk matches are. (Photo: Getty Images)

The Experts:  Travel writer Bill Fink has attended soccer matches ranging from the 2002 World Cup in Korea to first division battles in Moscow, and across Europe and South America. He got some tips from Tom Biddle, who works for Global Security Consulting Firm Atmospherics Unlimitedand has decades of experience in U.S. Special Forces. Tom also grew up in the U.K, so he knows his soccer (football!) and the violence that can surround it.

The Situation:  Travelling in Lima, Peru, I decided to get a taste of local culture and attend a pro soccer match.  Maybe I should have done a little research first. Inside the stadium, fans of bitter rivals Alianza Lima and Sporting Cristal were separated by 12-foot-tall barbed wire fences and a cordon of hundreds of riot police. Outside the stadium after the game, no fences separated the fans, and violence erupted. My Peruvian friend disappeared in the mob, my American buddy was assaulted, and I was lost in the swirling chaos of a full-scale soccer riot.

The Solution; It’s important to note that despite all the press about hooligans and stadium disasters, the vast majority of professional soccer games in foreign countries are safe and fun. But some aren’t. Here are seven tips on how to avoid the danger spots, or escape harm if something breaks out: 

(See also: How to Stay Safe During the World Cup)

Do your research: Find out if a match has the potential for violence, and if so, skip it. Local leagues and FIFA, (the international governing body of soccer) notify the public of “high-risk” matches. U.S. Consulates also issue alerts about potential dangers at games. Or just check with locals before a game:  Even non-sports fans who live in the area are going to know if there’s a history of trouble.

At a Korea National Team home game, you better be wearing red. (Photo: Bill Fink)

Wear neutral colors:   Although a team T-shirt or scarf makes a great souvenir, keep them in your bag until well after the game. No need to advertise that you’re a “soldier” for one team’s fan base in the midst of a street fight.  Biddle says to “be the inconspicuous ‘grey man’ in the crowd. “ And certainly don’t wear the visiting team’s colors—you’ll be treated like a Broncos fan at a Raiders game.

Keep your cool:  While it’s easier said than done, if things start to get crazy, it is important not to panic and get drawn into the hysteria—either by sprinting down the street and looking like you’re part of the mob, or by reacting to a perceived attack.  At the World Cup in Korea following a contentious U.S-Korea match, a mob closed around the car I was riding in and began rocking it back and forth.  I ignored my urge to fight or flee, and was rewarded when the group politely wiped their fingerprints from the hood and waved me on.

Come a little late, leave a little early:  Act like a Miami Heat  fan. It’s not the sports purist thing to do, but the intense folks will be there early and stay till the last moment. If you’re just visiting Bucharest, say, it probably doesn’t matter to you which Romanian team wins the championship, so it’s best to bug out a little early and avoid any potential trouble.

(Photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

Avoid the riot police:  They’re there to immolate rioters, not offer directions to tourists.  

If trouble begins, find safe haven:  Arrive knowing how to find your way home, with an alternate path if possible.  If you can’t get there, search the streets for a fancy hotel or shop: Play the tourist card, and you’ll likely be welcomed into a safe haven if things start to get crazy. 

Don’t go with the flow:  Rather than attacks from fellow fans or police, the worst disasters at soccer matches have been the result of people crushed or suffocated by throngs of crowds stampeding in panic.  It may seem counter intuitive, but if at all possible don’t go with the flow—move sideways from the crowd, or even remain where you are in a doorway or alcove and let the chaos blow by you.

The Epilogue:  I did everything wrong outside the match in Peru. I tried to tackle a guy who grabbed my friend’s hat. I didn’t know how to find my way home.  I lingered to see what was going to happen. And I sought out a riot cop on horseback for help. As it turned out, my Peruvian friend was hiding behind him, and reunited, we escaped without incident.  But looking back, I realize it could have turned out very badly for me, and I’ve been more prepared since.