American Football: Mayhem on parade tarnishes the all-American dream: This week's disturbances in Dallas following the Super Bowl reflect the difference between US and European sports-related violence. Rupert Cornwell reports from Washington

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The Independent Online
BY OUR statistics of sporting mayhem, the dozen or so arrests and 18 injuries which spoilt this week's homecoming parade of the Dallas Cowboys to celebrate their Super Bowl were Third Division stuff. Bar some lurid clips on CNN, the episode hardly rated a mention in the big out-of-town media. But for a few wise heads, the episode was a reminder of just what might happen when what the rest of the planet regards as the football World Cup gets underway here in 16 months' time.

Americans look upon the excesses of European football fans in horrified bewilderment; for most of them, the phenomenon is marginally more sanitised, but no more comprehensible, than today's tribal warfare in Bosnia, matched only on this side of the Atlantic by inner-city violence of the 1992 variety in Los Angeles. The comparison has a good deal going for it. Sport-begotten rioting is not unknown here. But it is not so much perverted expression of a supporter's loyalty to team or country as an outgrowth of the decay and racial tensions endemic to urban America.

In Britain, defeat tends to breed the worst excesses. Here, the problem is victory. Take the three most striking recent examples before Dallas, which occurred in two of the country's most violent inner cities. In 1984, Detroit erupted when the Tigers won the World Series. Six years later, it happened again with seven people dying when the Pistons won the NBA championship. In June 1992, when the Chicago Bulls did the same thing, the city saw dollars 10m ( pounds 7.1m) of damage and 1,000 arrests. The Los Angeles riots had happened just a month earlier.

In every case, including Dallas this week, the pattern was identical. Gangs moved in to disrupt peaceful parades, liquor stores were plundered and luxury shops looted, minorities took it out on other minorities.

Beyond doubt the problem is growing. Once the worst was the 1967 spectacle of Boston fans tearing up the turf of Fenway Park after the Red Sox won the AL East pennant. Since then, there has been a linear progression. As a sports- buff friend said: 'First they ripped out the goal posts, then they'd tear up the field. After that they'd beat up the stadium. Now they torch the city.' Sociologists may debate the deeper reasons. Others are less charitable. 'There's just more jerks around,' opined Chicago columnist Mike Royko after Bulls fans had laid Michigan Avenue to waste.

Almost never though, do one team's supporters extract vengeance on another's. After the Bills' third successive Super Bowl defeat, Buffalo is a city in mourning. Even in Pasadena where the game took place, nothing happened afterwards. A few traditional rivalries do get nasty, in baseball between the Chicago Cubs and the New York Mets, and the San Francisco Giants and the LA Dodgers. But by and large, the US has never experienced rival gangs of fans tearing into each other.

Stadiums here are relatively genteel places. Be it hockey or baseball, basketball or football, before each game every spectator stands to the 'Star Spangled Banner'. Imagine the denizens of the Shed or the Clock End singing the real words of 'God Save The Queen', rendered by the North Kensington Girls School choir.

Much beer is drunk and many insults hurled. But almost never do events get out of hand. One reason undoubtedly is the norm of all-seater stadiums; facilities, too, are infinitely better. The sheer distances are also a factor.

Some years ago I took my soon-to-be American wife to Highbury to watch a habitually drab 1-0 Arsenal victory over Southampton. By British standards, it was an uneventful game. But she was stunned by the sheer intensity of the crowd. A year from now, however, millions of Americans may be sharing the experience. After the opening World Cup game at Soldier Field in Chicago next summer, this week in Dallas may be more than a distant memory.