Rise in fan violence casts shadow over World Cup

Brazil and Russia are struggling to control a rising tide of soccer violence as the global spotlight shines on the future hosts of the next two FIFA World Cup tournaments

By Owen Gibson  /  The Guardian

Fri, Dec 27, 2013 - Page 9

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.

However, in many cases there is an umbilical link between the most vociferous fans’ groups — often with a predilection for violence — and those that run the clubs. In Brazil and Argentina, that manifests itself in clubs subsidizing tickets for violent fans’ groups. Sometimes, it is hard to tell who is in charge.

This is also the case in Italy, where groups of ultras revel in their ability to set the agenda at their clubs and demand that they are listened to. A crackdown on racist chanting has been extended to so-called “regional” abuse, which in turn has led to a backlash with the ultra groups trying to reassert what they see as their rights.

“We have a consumerist football culture here, but overseas they live their football. That’s quite interesting, but has elements that are very unpleasant,” Powar said. “We see a particular type of fan culture — a reversion to the ultras culture, a lifestyle for young people. This [the violence] is a perversion of that.”

Football Supporters’ Federation chief executive Kevin Miles believes that the reputation of British fans forged in the 1970s and 1980s still lingers, with rival fans — and often police forces too — reacting accordingly.

“The reputation is a lot easier to obtain than to get rid of. There is still a widespread perception in other countries that you can make a name for yourself by having a pop at the English,” Miles said. “All English football fans want is to be policed according to their behavior rather than their reputation. There’s a responsibility on the part of the countries and the clubs hosting games to ensure visiting fans can enjoy their trip.”

Police forces in some of those countries are increasingly looking to the British experience for clues as to how to deal with their own hooligan problem. It is no coincidence that the lists of Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) security delegates are stuffed with English ex-policemen.

While there is no hard evidence that the problem is getting worse in continental Europe, with English fans habitually targeted in certain cities down the years, incidents are more visible than ever.

In one typical incident, two Italians were jailed last month for their part in an unprovoked attack on Tottenham Hotspur fans last year, when SS Lazio and AS Roma followers launched an unprovoked attack in a pub, brandishing knives, metal poles and knuckle dusters and leaving one stabbed fan seriously injured.

The frustration for supporters’ groups and for the clubs is that there are certain destinations — Naples and Rome being two — where trouble seems almost guaranteed, yet little progress seems to have been made toward resolving the problem.

Complex, intractable issues demand a complex, multilayered response.

“The economic crisis, for sure, has made things worse. In many countries, governance is shambolic. Many clubs are badly run and run by individuals who have made their money in dubious ways or have dubious political affiliations,” Powar said.

After much pressure, UEFA and FIFA have both vowed to get tough not only on crowd misbehavior, but on extremism and discrimination within stadiums. Stadium closures and heavy fines have been levied in recent months on both national associations and clubs for the misconduct of their fans.

This season alone, clubs in Germany, Italy, France, the Netherlands, Scotland, Turkey, Cyprus, Russia, Poland and Romania have been sanctioned by European soccer’s governing body, while world soccer’s top authority endlessly pledges “zero tolerance” and has begun to back up its words with actions. Yet even here, there is a delicate balance to be struck. Punish the majority of fans with stadium closures for what they see as the actions of a minority and the likelihood is that they will sympathize with the offenders and rail against what they see as unfair treatment from the authorities.

Meanwhile, from Moscow (where Spartak fans went on the rampage) to Minas Gerais (where homemade bombs were recently confiscated from fans), the governments that reveled in being chosen as the next two hosts of FIFA’s flagship competition know they have work to do if their domestic travails with hooliganistic tendencies are not to overshadow their international moment in the sun.

Copyright: Guardian News & Media 2013

Soccer violence – a view from around the world

Brazil: Violence around games on rise

By Fernando Duarte

Brazil ends the year with a new record in the number of deaths related to soccer violence. It was a miracle that nobody died in the festival of thuggery that took place on Dec. 8 at the Atletico Paranaense versus Vasco de Gama match in Joinville, during the last round of the Campeonato Brasileiro (Brazilian Championship), whose shocking images were beamed all around the world. However, that did not prevent Brazilian soccer finishing the season with the saddest of milestones: the 30 deaths in soccer-related incidents this year is the highest number in the history of the game in Brazil.

Yet what is more worrying is that fatal cases have been rising steadily in the past few years. Between 1999 and 2008, there were 42 soccer-related deaths, but last year the number reached 29 for a single year. It is important to understand that the vast majority of those cases occurred outside stadiums and that the experience of watching a soccer match in Brazil has improved significantly in terms of safety in the past 20 years, but that should be no solace.

This is especially so given that similar scenes to the ones that marred the game in Joinville took place in September at Brasilia’s Estadio Nacional Mane Garrincha stadium, in a match between Corinthians and Vasco. It is one of the new arenas built for next year’s FIFA World Cup and touted by authorities as a catalyst for a change in fan behavior. However, the incident showed that this transformation is a far more complex issue.

As in Argentina, organist groups of supporters in Brazil are notorious for their penchant for fighting fans of other teams as well as their unscrupulous subsidization by clubs. They will often receive free tickets and financial help in exchange for favors, such as political support for club elections and even intimidation of opponents.

It is a relationship often denounced by the Brazilian media, but which lingers on at every major club in the country, limiting the efficiency of an eventual heavier approach from the authorities.

Yet the recent decision by the Japanese carmaker Nissan to end its sponsorship deal with Vasco because of the savagery in Joinville — adding to the woes of a club relegated to the wilderness of Brazil’s second division — could finally make directors feel the pinch and decide to act. Only chance — or the work of divine forces — has prevented Brazil in the past few decades from experiencing its own version of the Heysel disaster, but it is unwise to tempt fate.

Eastern Europe: Polish ultras remain a threat after last Euro

By Jonathan Wilson

The hope in Poland was that the improvement in stadiums brought by last year’s Euro soccer tournament — not just those grounds that hosted matches during the tournament, but also those used as training venues — would inspire a change in attitude similar to the one that occurred in England with the wave of stadium construction in the 1990s. However, the country’s ultras remain a dangerous and violent force.

Only last week, Zaglebie Lubin’s Slovakian midfielder Robert Jez was beaten up outside his house by three ultras, while other fans threw bricks at a car driven by the goalkeeper Michal Gliwa. Latvian forward Deniss Rakels has also received threats as Zaglebie struggle against relegation.

“If you don’t play, you should be scared,” ultras have taken to chanting at home matches.

Ultra groups remain a major issue in both Hungary and Romania, where hooligan groups often loosely espouse far-right politics, with antisemitism and anti-Roma racism rife. Others are just violent: one of the most notorious incidents came two years ago as a Petrolul Ploiesti fan ran on to the pitch during a game against Steaua Bucharest, ran up behind the defender George Galamaz and punched him in the side of the head, breaking his zygomatic bone and leaving him temporarily deaf in his right ear. Steaua goalkeeper Ciprian Tatarusanu then suffered burns to his back after being hit by a flare thrown from the stand and the game was abandoned.

So disillusioned have fans in Croatia become with their soccer establishment and, in particular, a voucher scheme that tries to regulate away supporters, that the two main ultra groups of Dynamo Kiev and HNK Hajduk Split — the Bad Blue Boys and Torcida — have declared a truce for the first time since the end of the war. At a recent derby in Zagreb, members of both groups attended the game together as a strangely harmonious show of dissent that made a mockery of the voucher system.

Russia: fan violence law for 2018 World Cup buildup

By Shaun Walker

Petty scuffles and small-scale brawls are still common at Russian league matches, and there is a strong link between fan club ultras and the nationalist far right. Ever since hundreds of fans fought pitched battles with police in a central Moscow square in 2010 after the murder of Spartak Moscow fan Yegor Sviridov by a group of Dagestanis, police have been keeping a closer eye on the potential for fan violence.

A new law will come into effect next month, promising much harsher penalties for fans who “disturb public order,” with fines of up to £300 (US$431), threats of community service and a ban on attending games for up to seven years. Police will draw up blacklists of fans who are banned and all stadiums must be fitted with closed-circuit television to keep an eye on incidents.

The law has been in discussion for months and is an attempt to tackle violence and racism in the runup to the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

In addition to brawls, nationalist and racist chanting is a problem, especially when black players or teams from Russia’s mainly Muslim south are playing. In September, Zenit St Petersburg fans burned a Chechen flag during a game with Terek Grozny.

Last month, Dynamo Moscow goalkeeper Anton Shunin was briefly hospitalized after an incident in which he was struck by a flare thrown by a fan during a game against Zenit and received burns to one of his eyes. The match was abandoned, Dynamo were given a 3-0 automatic victory and Zenit were ordered to play two matches behind closed doors. Also last month, there were clashes as Spartak Moscow played away at second-tier Shinnik Yaroslavl. Police had to use water cannons to disperse fighting supporters and the game also became notorious when photographs circulated online of Spartak fans unveiling a Nazi flag during the game.

Italy: players still in fear

By Paolo Bandini

US Salernitana’s 1919 game at home to ASG Nocerina last month lasted just 20 minutes. That was all it took for the visitors to lose five players to “injury,” leaving them with only six on the pitch. They had used up all three of their substitutions in the second minute.

Clearly, this was no accident. Nocerina’s players had been reluctant to take the field in the first place after receiving death threats from their own supporters — 200 of whom had shown up at training a day earlier, warning them not to go ahead. The ultras were acting in protest after local authorities banned all away fans from attending the local derby.

Their actions were greeted with disgust in Italy, but all too little surprise. Fan violence forced bigger games to be halted before. Salernitana and Nocerina play in the Lega Pro Prima Divisione — the third-tier — but as recently as April last year, a top-flight match between Genoa and AC Siena had to be suspended for 45 minutes after ultras began demanding the shirts off their players’ backs.

These are extreme examples, but there have been many less high-profile instances of fan violence directed at both players and at rival supporters. Just this month, three Ajax fans were stabbed before their team’s Champions League visit to AC Milan. More than once in the last year, team buses have been assaulted on their way to and from games. Various measures have been taken in a bid to stem the tide, from the introduction of the much-maligned tessera del tifoso — a mandatory fan ID card — to the temporary closure of individual stands in some stadiums.

Police statistics show that the number of fans injured at matches has dropped sharply since the beginning of 2006, but this problem is still a long way from being resolved.

Africa: Hooliganism tends to be spontaneous, not planned

By Paul Doyle

African soccer tends not to be afflicted by hooliganism in the same way that Europe and South America are. Which is not to say that violence is much rarer, far from it. It is only that it tends not to be instigated by organized groups who go to matches with the intention of causing trouble.

Rather, the violence tends to be spontaneous, erupting in response to perceived refereeing injustices or disappointing results. For instance, Senegal had to play the home leg of their World Cup playoff against Ivory Coast at a neutral venue because of the rioting that broke out in Dakar, the Senegalese capital, when the same opponents beat them in the previous year’s Africa Cup of Nations playoff. There are exceptions. For example, in Nigeria there are organized groups who seek to exert influence through violence and intimidation, in some cases with clubs’ tacit support or blatant complicity. In this season’s Nigerian Premier League, two clubs were ordered to play matches behind closed doors after fan violence, while the critical title decider between Kano Pillars and Enyimba International had to be replayed after a pitch invasion by home fans.

Kano and Enyimba both have sets of battle-ready supporters who congregate in a particular section of their stadiums (Kano’s volatile fringe dub their chosen hangout in the stands “Iraq,” while Enyimba fans call their equivalent spot “Colombia”). Since there tend not to be many traveling fans, the targets of violence tend to be opposition players or, most commonly, referees. The Nigerian league has vowed to increase ground suspensions and club fines after referees threatened to go on strike in protest at their regular persecution.

Elsewhere, orchestrated violence at soccer events has been rooted in political upheaval or social unrest, as in Egypt’s infamous Port Said massacre in February last year, when 79 people were killed. Then clashes between fans of Al-Masry and Al-Ahly were fueled and facilitated by police and military, seemingly as retribution for the involvement of Al-Ahly fans in the Tahrir Square uprising the previous year. When 21 supporters were sentenced to death for their role in that disaster, riots broke out in protest at the severity of the punishment and the perceived scapegoating of fans while agents provocateurs in authority escaped.

Mauritius made a radical attempt to eliminate politically motivated soccer violence more than a decade ago, when regular fighting eventually led to catastrophe. A title-decider between the mostly Muslim-supported Scouts Club and Creole club Fire Brigade degenerated into rioting that spread far beyond the stadium and lasted for a week, causing seven fatalities. The Mauritian league was suspended for more than eight months and a huge restructuring was launched, with several clubs disbanded and none allowed to reform along ethnic or religious lines, only regional ones. The measure worked in the most important sense: it has prevented repeats of such violence at soccer games, but the league has yet to recover as, with their traditional clubs gone, fans tend to restrict their supporting to European leagues on TV.