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Original Issue

Fanning the Flames

Soccer boosters played the unlikely role of peacemakers during the London riots

The nationwide riots in Britain last week resulted in five deaths, millions of dollars in damage and, far less important, the cancellation of an England-Netherlands soccer friendly as well as the Tottenham Hotspur--Everton Premier League opener. Soccer stars such as Manchester United's Rio Ferdinand and Newcastle's Joey Barton—the EPL's equivalent of Pacman Jones—appealed for calm on Twitter. But it was an even more unlikely bunch of good guys from the sports world who actually took action: the hard-core fans of the English club Millwall, who are among the world's most notorious hooligans.

Famous for their chant "No one likes us, and we don't care," Millwall backers stepped in for overwhelmed riot police, banding together with supporters from other local teams and marching down the main street of their southeast London neighborhood of Eltham to protect it from looters. This time their chant was a little different: "No one loots us."

Nobody is recommending a Citizens of the Year award for Millwall supporters—they have caused extensive mayhem of their own over the years, and some of their members use rhetoric that sounds eerily similar to the bad old days of the right-wing National Front—but their march raises one question: Would any North American fan groups have shown the same level of energy and unity in the face of public turmoil? Incidents of fan violence in our part of the world are common enough, from the post--Stanley Cup riots in Vancouver this June to past "celebrations" (read: shootings and looting) by Chicago Bulls fans to sofa-burning by West Virginia basketball zealots. But could you ever imagine, say, Atlanta Braves supporters acting like Millwall's did last week?

In general, the organization of soccer fan groups sets them apart from those of other sports, even on these slow-to-embrace-soccer shores. The American Outlaws, a U.S. national team supporters' group, formed in 2006 and has since used social media to acquire more than 6,000 paid members and create 63 chapters around the country. (Don't let the name Outlaws fool you; they simply like to wear American flag bandannas over their faces.) Just as passionate and organized are such local MLS fan groups as Seattle's Emerald City Supporters, Portland's Timbers Army, Chicago's Section 8 and Philadelphia's Sons of Ben. Unlike Millwall's hard cores, the U.S.-based clubs aren't notorious for hooliganism; some even have their own charity and community initiatives.

Considering all of that goodwill, maybe it's time for fans of other U.S. sports to join in and get organized.





BAND OF BROTHERS On the field, Ferdinand and his Man U mates wore black armbands in honor of three Birmingham men who died during last week's rioting.