Violence raises its ugly face


Ten years on from the death of two Leeds United fans in Instanbul, Richard Chambers investigates the resurgence in hooliganism in recent times

April 5th marked the tenth anniversary of one of the most harrowing moments in recent football history. Leeds United fans Christopher Loftus (35) and Kevin Speight (40) were fatally stabbed in Istanbul on the eve of the club’s UEFA Cup tie against Galatasaray.  The deaths caused outrage across the continent with many seeing it as an anomalous incident, a product of a bygone period when fan violence was commonplace. The ‘justice’ campaigns were credited with catalysing a movement to prevent any further deaths from football-related violence. It is unfortunate to recognise that despite these best efforts, the problem has resurged in Europe and continues to thrive in Latin America.

The extent of the problem in Argentina has been well documented. The fanatical supporter groups, the Barra Brava, dominate the sport, with many leading members linked to politicians. Riots are commonplace and firearms have superseded improvised weapons. This year has been particularly grievous for Argentinean football: five people, including a policeman, have died from their wounds. The government has long been criticised for failing to address the situation; a fresh scandal has emerged as it was announced that five hundred leaders of the Barra Brava would receive free trips to the World Cup in South Africa. The initiative was proposed by HUA, an umbrella group for supporters clubs – an organisation legitimised by the government.

Even clubs and nations without a notable history of hooliganism have experienced this upsurge. Berlin’s Olympiastadion, the stage for great moments of sporting endeavor from Jesse Owens to Usain Bolt, was reduced to the setting for a moment of significantly less glory just a few months ago. More than one hundred Hertha Berlin fans took to the field following their defeat to relegation rivals Nürnberg, using metal bars to damage hoardings and the dugouts. This instance has not been an isolated one this season. Historically, any disturbances in German football have been limited to the infiltration of supporters by far-right extremists; now, however, German football has been exposed to the subculture of the ‘casuals’.

Casualism, a brand of hooliganism that originated in Britain in the 1980s, takes its name from the attire of its participants. These firms forsake the replica shirts and garb of the traditional hooligan in favour of brands such as Stone Island and Lacoste, allowing for easier penetration of opposing fans and nonhooligans (or ‘scarfers’). For this reason, they are potentially the most threatening. The subculture has experienced a massive revival over the past decade, with films Green Street and The Football Factory inadvertently serving to glorify the phenomenon. The model has spread across the continent, including France where further loss of life can be attributed to fan violence.

A member of a casual firm loyal to Paris Saint Germain was the victim of a feud between two sections of the Parc des Princes Stadium, an arena already infamous for crowd trouble. The man, named only as ‘Yann L’ by authorities and a member of the Boulogne End gang, died as a result of head injuries sustained in a manifestation of this most superficial of tribal disputes. The firms boast of their ferocious pride in their clubs, and yet engage in the wanton murders of fellow fans. It is easy to see why observers claim that the hooligans are motivated solely by violence.

In a statement regarding the February 28th riot, the French Sports Minister Rama Yade said “the worst had happened,” adding: “Passions transformed into sordid, senseless, murderous rage. Love of the jersey has become hate of the other, hate of sport and hate of life.” PSG’s response was swift, with the banning of all fans from away fixtures for the remainder of the season. The Parisian club’s method, like all prevalent methods to address violence, have been labelled purely reactionary and do nothing to pacify potential troublemakers.

Realistically speaking, there is little governments or UEFA can do to actively discourage those with criminal intent. Michel Platini recently met with the EU Commissioner responsible for sport, Androulla Vassiliou, where violence was among the most prominent items for discussion. Preventing hooligans from access to the vicinity of stadiums will only do so much to quell the escalating violence. Any European attempts to dislodge such activity from the sport must be mirrored internationally, less the World Cup be tarnished by an incident similar to that which befell Loftus and Speight. Should these fears be realised it would, as Rama Yade described the violence, be “a victory for barbarism and a defeat for sport, fraternity and civilisation.”