With the score tied at 1-1 midway through the second-half, the soccer match between “International” and “Vipers” was a tightly fought struggle that included much physical play.
A team comprised of top-level players representing a variety of different nationalities, “International’s” participation in the July 4th soccer tournament was made possible this year after a controversial decision was made by Lao Family, the host of the July 4th Sports Festival, to begin including teams of all nationalities in the soccer competition.
“Vipers” on the other hand has a long history of being one of the scrappiest, toughest teams in the Hmong soccer circuit. They wouldn’t be easily intimidated.
As the battle on the soccer field intensified, personal conflicts between individual players from both teams began to erupt on the field. Suddenly, as two players tangled away from the ball, one of the “International” players visibly threw a punch at a “Vipers” player.
That one punch turned what was an exciting soccer match into an all-out melee. Pure chaos erupted.
At first, a swarm of “Vipers” team members began chasing the one “Internationals” player. As that chase continued, other “Internationals” players found themselves in the middle of their own struggle as members from the crowd began harassing nearly all who were wearing the “Internationals” uniform.
Despite intervention from bystanders, the feverish crowd—most who were not involved in the game itself–grew into an uncontrollable mob. Umbrellas seemed to be the weapon of choice as the mob began chasing down and beating on “Internationals” players.
By the time the police arrived, the chaos had simmered down. Despite the violence of the attacks, only a few of the “Internationals” players suffered minor injuries.
What may have suffered even more, contends Ya Vang, a representative from the “Internationals”, is the image of Hmong soccer tournaments and Hmong soccer fans.
“I will not bring my team to this tournament again,” said a frustrated Vang. “The risk of endangering my players is a chance I cannot take.”
Although he praises the organizers for taking steps to diversify the tournament, Vang believes there is much room for further improvement.
“How about hiring real referees?” Vang poignantly asks. “The tournament is a big money maker, so why not hire real referees to make sure the game doesn’t get out of hand? I feel like we’re still in the 1980s when it comes to rules and referees.”
Long-time soccer follower Roger Thao is even more critical of the refereeing.
“It’s pathetic,” Thao bluntly points out. “The organizers don’t seek out the best referees, they simply seek out those who will do it at the cheapest price.”
A FIFA (the world’s governing soccer organization) certified referee himself, Thao described the brand of soccer being played as “Hmong soccer. Not the soccer that follows FIFA rules, but 1980s style of play. It’s ‘Hmong soccer’.”
Among some of the examples Thao brings up is how the championship game continues to be played at the brink of darkness.
“The championship game has to be shortened to 15-minutes per half, otherwise darkness will fall. A complete game should be 90-minutes. After nearly 30 years of throwing this tournament, don’t you think they would do it right by now?” ”
Wameng Lee, Sports Director for the tournament over the last three years, contends that improvements continue to be made.
“Compared to previous years, the incidences of violence or fighting has really gone down. The fight between “Vipers” and “Internationals” was the only fight this year on the soccer field.”
Asked if the rules will remain the same to allow non-Asian teams in the tournament, Lee affirms that the rules will not change.
“Allowing others into the tournament is something the City of St. Paul has mandated for us to do. Diversifying the teams is something we think will help the tournament become more exciting and challenging.”
Among some of the improvements the organizers are considering for next year is to split the teams into two different divisions, separating the teams based upon their competition level—advanced or recreational.
“We have discovered over the years that there are different levels of soccer,” Lee continues. “There are teams that compete very hard and there are teams that just want to have fun. By splitting the divisions, we can have both.”
Despite the steps taken to gradually improve over the years, soccer enthusiasts such as Roger Thao and Ya Vang still believe that there is a long way to go before Hmong soccer tournaments can gain universal respect from the broader world of soccer.
“When people ask me if I am Hmong,” Thao laments. “I’m sometimes ashamed to confess that I am. I’d rather just say, Hey, I’m an American, just like you.”
There are some bright points about the annual July 4th Soccer Tournament, however.
As Ya Vang is thrilled to point out, “There are some really, really good soccer players out there. According to what I saw, there are some young guys who—if they trained correctly and had the heart to continue—could make it to the pros one day.”
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