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Beer and Loathing at Spartan Stadium

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OF ALL the soccer matches I've attended in the intimate confines of Spartan Stadium since 1977, I've never seen anything remotely as passionate as the display put on by San Jose Earthquakes fans on June 25 of this year—the last time their despised rival Los Angeles rolled into town. Now the Los Angeles Galaxy are in town for two games over four days, one tonight and one Saturday.

The reason for the passion and rage last June was that Landon Donovan, who spent four years maturing into the country's best player right here in San Jose—and who's now one of the leaders of the United States national squad—decided to return to the United States and play not for the Quakes but for Los Angeles. Quakes fans already felt like their team was being systematically swept under the rug by Major League Soccer, and this was the last freakin' straw. As a result, fans brought a Landon piñata to the tailgate area and kids bashed the hell out of it on national television while parents swilled alcohol. It was beer and loathing at its finest.

Banners insulting Donovan covered the inside of the stadium and the majority of fans booed the hell out of him whenever he touched the ball. It was a thunderous environment, the likes of which this league rarely sees. And when L.A. lost 3-0, including two embarrassing own goals in three minutes, you realized that every possible emotion was just thrown right in your face during that match. 15,000 cheering fans sounded like 45,000 and, as always, I just wanted to dive out of the press box and join the crowd over a beer or six. After the second own goal, said Donovan, the players couldn't hear anything on the field because the crowd was so loud.

Not everyone, however, was in hate mode. Many cheered Donovan when his name was announced—a "thanks for the memories" kinda thang.

"I'm glad I heard a lot of fans applauding him," said Quakes goalkeeper Pat Onstad in the locker room afterward. "He did a lot for this franchise and the guys who know him know he's in a place where he's a lot happier and he'll be a better player. You've already seen that in the World Cup qualifying."

San Jose coach Dominic Kinnear agreed. "I'm not going to boo him," he said. "I think he's a great player. I told him after the game that I miss him. Not only is he a good player, he's a good person. If the fans want to pay their money and boo, they have every right to do that. ...They're venting their frustration and anger and they have a right to do that, but I wouldn't boo him."

After the game, reporters asked Donovan if the booing hurt his feelings. He said he was indifferent. While I'm not entirely convinced of that, at least he was man enough not to take it personally. Most importantly, he said that the fans created a passionate environment that made him just not want to be there. He said it was like being in a foreign country.

Predictably, others in the Los Angeles camp did take it personally, including one commentator who lashed out at Quakes fans in an online article. It read like a 5-year-old crying, "Aaawwww, how dare you boo our dear Landon. That's appalling. This would never happen in Europe."

Of course, he's dead wrong. The treatment Donovan received was nothing compared to what happens in Europe. A few years ago, Barcelona star Luis Figo left to play for that team's hated rival Real Madrid and then when Madrid came to play at Barcelona, the fans threw whiskey bottles, golf balls, mobile phones and a pig's head at him. It was one isolated incident, of course, but those fans believe Madrid receives unwarranted attention and the majority of the star players—precisely how Quakes fans feel about Los Angeles. All this only adds to how beautiful this rivalry is.

L.A. is here in town for two games and San Jose fans will try to make it living hell for the entire Galaxy team, many of whom have admitted over the years that they just hate playing here. Now, would I myself boo Donovan if I were out there with the screaming fans instead of in the beerless press box? I don't know. It would depend on how drunk I was.

So if you go to one soccer match all year, make this Saturday's game the one. It'll be beer and loathing at Spartan Stadium, San Jose style—whether anyone else likes it or not.

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From the August 24-30, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.




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