In six months, the 2014 FIFA World Cup will land in the home of joga bonito clad in a FIFA-approved wrapping of sun, sea and samba. However, the dark side of the beautiful game in Brazil was made evident earlier this month, when images of running battles between fans of Atletico Paranaense and CR Vasco da Gama shocked the world.
The game was being held on neutral ground in Joinville Santa Catarina State due to previous clashes between fans of the two clubs. However, within 10 minutes, television network Globo was broadcasting close-up footage of supporters stamping on the heads of their rivals and chasing one another around the Arena Joinville.
Brazilian Minister of Sports Aldo Rebelo, the erratic official who is also battling to make sure the stadiums due to host the World Cup are ready on time amid a spate of deaths among construction workers, has promised a crackdown.
“Whoever commits the kind of violence we saw should be detained forthwith. It constitutes attempted homicide,” he said last week.
Yet while the brutal scenes may have been beamed around the world due to the game’s proximity to the World Cup draw, it was not an isolated example.
Four years after the World Cup comes to Brazil, Russia will host the sport’s global showpiece. Last month, Spartak Moscow fans went on a rampage, which resulted in 78 arrests and the imposition of tough new laws starting next month.
Again, this was just one example among many, as a toxic brew of nationalism, club loyalty, far-right ideology and alcohol explodes into violence on a regular basis. Sport-Express, Russia’s leading sports newspaper, warned that if the violence was allowed to carry on it would mean “the end of football in our country.”
There are growing concerns about the endemic nature of soccer violence in Russia and its links to organized crime and right-wing groups. Those fears are replicated across much of Eastern Europe and to some observers are underpinned by a dangerous ideology.
“The big thing we’ve observed over the last two years has been the rise of the far right in football,” said Piara Powar, executive director of Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE), an anti-discrimination network. “They’ve always had a significant hold over young people and young football fans, but it’s become more organized and more frequent. More banners, more chants, more of a direct link.”
Banners pledging solidarity with the Greek far-right party Golden Dawn have been spotted throughout Eastern Europe.
Scenes that became all too familiar in the UK’s soccer pitches in the 1970s and 1980s, with fans fighting one another across vast open terraces and the British National Front using the grounds as recruitment centers, are being replicated across the European continent, but on a more organized, criminal basis.
It took all-seater stadiums, the introduction of megapixel CCTV technology so sophisticated that any fan in the ground could easily be picked out, clubs getting banned from Europe and a wholesale change in soccer culture to rid the British game of what was once called “the English disease.” Over recent years, it appears to have been catching.
It is impossible to generalize about the causes and symptoms across the world. The societal and cultural reasons why fans fight one another in Brazil, or why ultras in Italy defend their reputation with such violent zeal, or why gangs of organized criminals use soccer as their backdrop in Eastern Europe are all very different.