The Gentleman’s Game

In the wake of the Egyptian football riots, Aaron Kennedy looks at violence across the sport, and how it has sullied the ‘beautiful game’.

The post-match violence that left seventy-nine people dead and over a thousand injured in Port Said, Egypt earlier this month has highlighted once again the dark side of the ‘beautiful game’. At its best, football is the world’s premier sport for a spectacle of athleticism and skill; at its worst, it is a cauldron of racism and violence. Forget about diving and back-talking to the referee; the violence that surfaces in football sullies its reputation, yet it is only when deaths occur that we realise just how serious such aggression is.What distinguished the events in Egypt from other notable incidents were the riots that followed, with over a dozen people killed in the aftermath. This tragedy ranks among the world’s most horrific and damaging sport-related disasters. Egyptian officials have had no choice other than to suspend the Egyptian Premier League until things have settled, a move which is rarely made by a league. Egypt’s Deputy Health Minister, Dr. Hisham Shiha declared on Egyptian television that the majority of deaths occurred from asphyxiation or bone fractures.The violence in Cairo is unfortunately not the only football-related disaster to strike Africa in recent years. On July 9th 2000, Zimbabwean police fired tear gas at fans after a stampede erupted; thirteen supporters died at the Harare National Stadium in a game between Zimbabwe and South Africa. In April 2001, mass overcrowding at the Ellis Park Stadium at a derby game between Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates caused the death of forty-three people.For decades, football in Italy has transcended simply being a game, and caused vehemence amongst fans. Italian Ultras have caused endless trouble and actually led the officials in Serie A to ban them from stadia in their own country. In 2005, Inter Milan fans forced their team’s derby game against A.C. Milan to be abandoned after they hurled missiles and flares onto the pitch at the San Siro.On May 29th 1985, thirty-nine Juventus fans were crushed to death before a match against Liverpool, in the Heysel Stadium Disaster. All English clubs were banned from European competitions until 1990, Liverpool getting an extra year due to theirs being the sole contribution to the disaster.In March 1978, a full-scale riot broke out at the Den during an FA Cup quarter final between Millwall and Ipswich. Fighting began on the terraces, eventually spilling onto the pitch and into the narrow streets around the ground, leading to dozens of innocent people being injured. The 1989 Hillsborough disaster caused the deaths of ninety-six supporters, making it the deadliest stadium-related disaster in England. An enquiry into the case concluded that the violence was due to a lack of police control.The Millwall Bushwackers, the club’s ‘firm’ of supporters, have been at the centre of violence in English football for decades, clashing with the fans of clubs such as Ipswich, Luton, Arsenal, and most recently West Ham, their most hated rivals. After twenty years of peacefulness, extremist fans of West Ham and Millwall started a riot during a League Cup tie at Upton Park in 2009. A man suffered severe stab wounds and it was also reported that a pregnant woman had a brick thrown at her.If this violence is to continue throughout football, it will destroy the reputation of FIFA, the game itself and its large support base. It is evident that security issues are one of the main reasons such incidents occur, but there is an undeniable socio-political undercurrent in these riots, particularly in Africa. Increasing security and refurbishing stadiums is a must if a repeat of these scenes is to be avoided. Egypt has now given the world of sport a wakeup call, and we can only hope that football’s governing bodies tackle the issue.Ireland has also had its fair share of violence in sport, albeit on a much smaller scale, most notably in the GAA of late. The most recent clash came in the All-Ireland Junior Football Club Championship game between Dromid Pearses and Derrytresk, which sparked huge media attention. Violence is beginning to become a trait of the sport and managers are starting to ask for harsher punishments for teams who engage in such activity. Brawls have become more common and the GAA are yet another governing body that has to step up and address such violence in sport.