Sunday, June 16, 2024

A soccer game in Irvine, America’s safest city, ends with a brawl and police investigation

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Club Garrafones, an undefeated soccer team from South Los Angeles, arrived in Irvine on Saturday ready to play.

The opposing team, Irvine Zeta FC II, was younger and lower ranked but managed to pull an upset. A red card gave Zeta a penalty kick in the second half, and they scored, ultimately winning 2 to 1.

After the game ended, a back-and-forth between opposing players turned into a dispute, an outright fight and, eventually, a brawl.

Players pushed one another. Parents, family and spectators descended onto the field. Kicks, shoves and punches came in waves over the next few minutes.

“One of their players came up and punched my player,” said Bryan Wallace, head coach of Irvine Zeta, “and that started the entire thing. Their team and their parents and a bunch of guys on their bench just started attacking.

“One of their coaches attacked the goalkeeper. One of the other coaches attacked and kicked a parent. That to me is mind-blowing,” Wallace said. “We are supposed to set an example of how to act.”

The fight resulted in one of Wallace’s 17-year-old players suffering a broken nose; a player’s dad was kicked in the head; several players left with split lips, and another had a chipped tooth.

“They are on paper better than us, and they lost the game,” Wallace said. “And they were really triggered by that.”

The brawl lasted at least four minutes. The incident is under investigation, said Sgt. Karie Davies of the Irvine Police Department. The inquiry will entail poring over cellphone footage by witnesses, which was broadcast by Fox11.

“I reviewed the video, and it’s very chaotic,” Davies told The Times. “It will take time to sort out what happened and get people identified.”

United Premier Soccer League, the professional development league with more than 400 clubs, including Zeta and Garrafones, announced this weekend it was investigating the dispute. Late Monday, the organization expelled Club Garrafones “effective immediately.”

“As a result of a senseless and violent, post-game altercation on Saturday, Club Garrafones has been removed from the UPSL and a lifetime ban has been put in place for the organization and its coaching staff,” the league said in a statement. “All their remaining games will be declared a forfeit.”

Reached Monday, the head coach and owner of Club Garrafones said he and his players felt maligned by the swift expulsion and what he called a rush to judgment.

The coach, Roger Navarro, and his wife, Evelyn, told The Times that the opposing team — Wallace’s players — started the dispute. In their telling, one of Garrafones’ players fouled one of Wallace’s players near the game’s final moments.

Instead of walking away, the Zetas player “went and tried to attack the player that fouled him,” Navarro said. Another Garrafones player tried to intervene and break up the scuffle, only to get hit from behind.

“That’s how it started. That was the first brawl — but it wasn’t recorded,” Evelyn said.

Navarro was more blunt: The Zetas “were whooping our a—” before the camera started rolling. His point was that once the cameras began recording, an act of self-defense appeared like needless aggression.

Navarro conceded the sight captured by video cameras was not pretty.

“Everything looks bad on our side. I know we look bad. But it wasn’t like they say it was,” Navarro said.

Navarro and his wife said his players — nearly all Latinos from low-income backgrounds — faced repeated harassment and racial slurs from the opposing team in Irvine as the game pressed on Saturday night. The goalie, who wore a pink uniform, was taunted as “Peppa Pig” and shamed for his appearance, while other players were derided with slurs like “wetback” and “beaner.”

“We didn’t start nothing, sir,” Navarro said. “We were defending ourselves.”

Wallace, the coach of Irvine Zeta, rejected the accusation that his players uttered racial slurs.

“That’s complete nonsense,” Wallace said. “My own players would be offended if any of my players said that.” He noted the several players on his team who hail from Mexico, Korea, and France. “My goalkeeper who got beat up is Mexican,” he added. “The rightback is Black from France. … It’s a mixture of people.”

Police sirens brought the fight to an end. Navarro and his team left and returned to L.A.

Wallace said he stayed behind to talk to police, and the officers collected statements from spectators who had observed the melee. The referees also drew up a report on what they witnessed, which was used to inform soccer league officials as they weighed whether to expel Navarro and his team.

Wallace said the opposing coach left the scene quickly, and questioned why he would do so: “If you feel you are on the wrong side of anything that happened Saturday, stay. Speak to the police. Make your case. Speak up. Don’t run away. Show up, follow the rules, trust the system.

“This type of behavior is unacceptable,” he later added.

Navarro said the brawl and the elimination from the league were setbacks for him and his team. He contrasted his soccer club with other wealthier groups in the league, with parents typically paying hundreds of dollars and spending far more for their kids to travel and compete.

“We’re not like every other academy that charges all these fees,” Navarro said. He and his wife said the team had offered a pathway for players to push themselves to complete their GEDs and go to community college. “We want to help keep these kids out of trouble.”

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