By Michael Lewis
One by one, the out-of-town U.S. national soccer press corps left the Orange Bowl press box after finishing their Concacaf Gold Cup stories on Feb. 19, 2000.
The U.S. men’s national team had just been ushered out of the competition in the quarterfinals after a disappointing and distressing loss to Columbia via a shootout while losing a pair of one-goal leads in the process.
There was no need to stay for the second game of the doubleheader.
Except for the local papers, which included the Miami Herald and Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, the lone out-of-town writers who decided to stay for the nightcap — Grahame L. Jones of the Los Angeles Times and yours truly
Heck, we really had nothing else planned for that Saturday night and it was a soccer game to watch and perhaps write a bit about.
What we witnessed was an entertaining attacking game in which Peru and Honduras just about matched each other goal for goal. Then in the 87th minute, chaos reigned, as bottles, seats and other debris rained down on the historic field in Miami in what can be considered the first American soccer riot.
Riot police were called in and more than 100 Miami police officers and security personnel battled some 2,000 angry fans for nearly 45 minutes.
The ruckus began with Peru leading 5-3 when referee Mario Sanchez of Chile red carded Honduran international Carlos Pavon. Sanchez disallowed a goal by Pavon, who then kicked the ball into the stands. Not a smart move and he was ordered off the field.
The smoldering pot boiled over in a hurry. The Honduran bench bolted onto the field and Milton Reyes bumped Sanchez and he was given his marching orders.
Then fans invaded the pitch as the teams scurried for the safety of their locker rooms as security raced to protect Sanchez and his assistant referees.
That’s when the fans started to throw anything they could find onto the field.
Police reinforcements were called in. Sirens and cars flashing red and blue lights ringed the Orange Bowl as a helicopter circled the stadium. Some 34 fans were arrested, although some reports had more than 50 spectators were taken in. Some policemen suffered minor cuts and bruises.
It was an ugly scenario, the ugliest I had ever seen in the USA.
I watched the surreal scenario from the press box. I eventually went downstairs to inspect the battlefield and yes, there were beer bottles, garbage and seats that the crazed fans pulled out from their moorings and threw onto the field.
Oh, and unfortunately, I don’t have any photos of the riot because remember, this was 2000 and I don’t think cellphones had cameras back then. Well, at least mine didn’t.
Interesting addendum: I called the Daily News sports desk and explained that I had a story about the riot and that I could give them a new story. They said they were satisfied with my first edition story, but that I could write a paragraph they could add to the end of it. I could not believe they were turning down an eye-witness account (and with facts, of course) of what happened. Could not see that happening today.
Missed opportunity, no doubt.
I did get an opportunity to write about it for my column on CNNSI.com (CNN and Sports Illustrated worked together to operate a sports website back then).
Jones, incidentally, wrote a separate in the L.A. Times, which was packaged next to his story of the U.S. men’s Gold Cup debacle. Got to give the Times credit; the paper knew (and still knows) how to cover soccer.
Needless to say, I was frustrated, unable to write my version of what transpired on the field and in stands. Instead of getting angry, I turned my disappointment into positive energy.
I had run into too many of these incidents and situations. It helped give me the idea to start BigAppleSoccer.com with Charlie Cuttone in 2004. I felt that tri-state soccer fans were missing out on a lot of real good stories, from news to features and opinions.
And one last thing, as you can see, I have a photo of my Gold Cup press badge and my parking pass for that particular game (yes, I even saved some of them). After witnessing what transpired in the stadium, I was pleasantly surprised that my rental car was untouched in the parking lot.
Still, that unforgettable scene in the Orange Bowl has been etched into my mind forever.