Police prepare for unruly fans for finals of soccer tourney

A.M. Costa Rica/Zach McDonald Soccer fans gather before the big weekend game.

With the finals of the country’s winter soccer tournament approaching this weekend, Costa Rican law enforcement officers have had their hands full trying to keep the nation’s favorite pastime from devolving into gang warfare.

It is not uncommon during Costa Rican soccer games that fights break out between supporters of the different teams. Objects are often launched from the bleachers at opposing players on the field or at groups of other fans. When the crowds let out from the stadium nearby residences and businesses brace for the possibility of vandalism or theft.

Sunday at the classic semifinal showdown between Liga Deportiva Alajuelense from Alajuela and Deportivo Saprissa S.A.D. from Tibás, Fuerza Pública agents reported several run-ins with fans. First a Saprissa supporter lit a flare in the crowd. Officers rushed the stands but were unable to apprehend the culprit.

Alajuela Fuerza Pública chief Milton Alvarado said that following the game a rock was thrown by what he assumed to be a La Liga fan at a bus full of Saprissa supporters. And as the city of Alajuela celebrated its victory into the night, the police had several more altercations due to drinking and fights and had to shut down three bars in the area.

But Alvarado said, as his city’s team heads into a two-match championship series with the other semi-finalist, Club Sport Herediano, from Heredía, they’re not taking any chances when it comes to security. At the game against Saprissa, which has one of the largest and most zealous fan base, he said he dispatched 250 officers, 20 of them mounted on horseback, for crowd control at the stadium. He said there may be even more for the final when it comes to Alajuela in two weeks.

The Heredía Fuerza Pública chief, Daniel Calderón, said Heredía’s semifinal win over Cartago was less problematic. But his agency still had 150 officers dispatched. He said there are several special tactics employed by officers during high-profile soccer games, including diligent screening at the entrances for weapons and other possible projectiles and responding quickly to scuffles in the crowd during the game.

Calderón said one of the most effective is to hold the home team’s barra, the large, youthful chanting section belonging to each team, until the other team’s barra has left the stadium and has had ample time to take a bus out of town.

Many problems occur when the two groups clash, and it can resemble gang violence.

In the first tournament game between Saprissa and La Liga, riot police kept enduring a barrage of food items, including soft drinks. They kept Saprissa’s barra locked up for over an hour in its section while the other fans filtered out.

Regardless, several scuffles were seen outside of the stadium.

Officials say it used to be a lot worse. Fans would bring knives and bags of urine to throw at bystanders, and pick-pocketing and violence were far more common than now. But one thing is certain, both Calderón and Alvarado are bracing for the finals matches this weekend and the next, hoping fans can enjoy a good soccer match without problems.

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