Thu, Jan 26, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Germany sets sights on Cup hooligans

GATHERING INTELLIGENCE The authorities are probing violent soccer fans in other nations to prevent this year's competition from suffering the fate of other tournaments

AFP , DUESSELDORF, GERMANY

German police are busily amassing intelligence from around the world in an attempt to prevent this year's soccer World Cup finals from being marred by brawling hooligans.

Expectations are low among Germans that the World Cup will live up to its official slogan, "A Time to Make Friends."

More than three-quarters of people expect hooliganism in the 12 cities where the matches will be played, while two-thirds believe fans will clash with police in the stadiums, according to a poll carried out by the TNS Emnid institute.

Such fears are not unfounded -- the most recent World Cup played in Europe, the 1998 tournament in France, was scarred by brawling English fans and an attack by German skinheads which left a French policeman physically and mentally disabled.

The last finals, in Japan and South Korea in 2002, were trouble-free, but most observers attributed that to the fact they were staged far from the traditional European "centers" of hooliganism, such as England and the Netherlands.

The wide availability of cheap beer in Germany, the fact that the country is served by cheap flights from all over Europe and its many shared borders make the 2006 tournament potentially high-risk.

Yet Michael Endler, a high-ranking German police officer and an expert on hooligans from the Office of Criminal Investigation in the western city of Duesseldorf, said there was no reason to panic.

"Not every supporter brandishing a country's flag and holding a glass of beer is going to commit violence," Endler said.

Endler and his staff from the Central Sport Information Unit (ZIS) will play a key role during the finals.

They said the key to preventing violence is intelligence-gathering.

"During the World Cup, we will process between 800 and 1,000 pieces of information from Germany and abroad," Endler said.

Data will be collected centrally and then sent to the police forces in the 16 federal states ahead of each of the 64 matches to allow security arrangements to be planned locally.

"Beyond that there will be officers who know the scene from Germany and abroad reporting on the situation in the stadiums," Endler said.

The unit will swell from its current size of 17 members of staff to around 150 in May, and will move to Neuss near Duesseldorf in time for the June 9 kickoff.

Endler's unit was created in 1992 to observe the hooligan scene in Germany because most of the main professional clubs in the country are based in that region.

It began working in collaboration with its counterparts abroad for the 2002 World Cup in Asia and the Euro 2004 finals in Portugal.

Diplomatically, Endler refused to be drawn on which countries' fans were considered high-risk.

"Wherever we have the potential for violence, we will be informed by the participating countries shortly before the start of the World Cup. We will then concentrate on those people," Endler said.

Traditionally, the risk of trouble has come from English, Dutch and German fans, yet recent reports from Poland suggest a radical hooligan fringe is on the rise there.

This is a worrying development considering Poland is one of Germany's neighbors and the two nations have been drawn to play each other in the first round.

The danger of trouble at the world's biggest sporting event is considerable.

In Germany alone, the police believe around 10,000 football fans are prone to violence.

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