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Soccer Riots: History and Politics


Only a few months after winning the World Cup, Italian football is in crisis – again. Last year a referee-tampering scandal sent Series A champions and Italy’s most famous club Juventus to the barren wastelands of Serie B. Last weekend Italian football was shut down after a policeman was killed by a crowd in a Series A game in Sicily.

Currently a 17-year-old is the main suspect. And the government has reacted strongly. Apparently only six stadiums are going to be allowed to reopen any time soon. The others lack the suddenly required safety features (including close circuit TV) which they’ve supposed to have had for several years. This includes Italy’s most famous arena, the San Siro in Milan which is shared between the two giant Milan clubs, AC and Inter.

Anyone who’s ever seen the briefest scenes of Italian football on TV will probably have been astonished by the huge fluorescent purpley-red flares set off by the fans standing behind the goals. They usually are lit when their team scores, but in some cases they’ve been used to disrupt games. The most notable case was in the quarter-final of the 2005 European Champions League played in the San Siro Stadium between the two Milan clubs. Inter were losing, then had a goal disallowed, and their fans threw flares onto the field. One hit the AC Milan goalkeeper. The game was halted, then abandoned, and later awarded to AC Milan (who went on to lose the final to Liverpool). Inter’s penalty was the proverbial slap on the wrist – they were forced to play their next 4 home games in an empty stadium.

The bad news, clearly, is that fan violence in Italy is out of control.

The worse news is that no one has really tried to stop it for two main reasons. First, the clubs believe that they make money from their “Ultras” – their hardest core supporters – by selling them blocks of tickets. The second is that team support has become very political, with typically right-wing extremists identifying with, and organizing, the Ultras for certain teams. The players don’ t exactly help. An Italian who was well known for playing for West Ham in England, Paulo diCanio has twice publicly given the fascist salute on the field to the Ultras at his current team Lazio – the team Mussolini supported. And all of this was summed up by former TV executive and AC Milan owner Silvio Berlusconi, calling his political party “Forza Italia” (literally the equivalent of “Go USA”) and becoming prime minister with the support of pleny of right-wing extremist fans.

But if things are bad enough that the Italians want to change, the good news is that they can look north for the solution.

There was plenty of crowd trouble in the 1800s and early 1900s in the UK, especially in the sectarian games between Rangers (protestants) and Celtic (Catholics) in Scotland. That particular problem continues.

However, the history of modern English hooliganism is relatively recent. One early reported incident was in 1965 in a lower league game in London between Queens Park Rangers and Millwall. Millwall was losing and its fans started to invade the field. The announcer apparently told the fans that if they didn’t get off the field the game would be abandoned. Figuring that an abandoned game that would be replayed was a better outcome than a loss, more fans ran on the field and the game was abandoned. By the early 1970s fighting between rival fans and the creation of “firms” (gangs) with specific nicknames within each club’s supporters was common. But it was largely concentrated in certain clubs – Manchester United, Chelsea and Millwall being among the worst.

So the club owners blamed the other teams fans, and the owners of those teams ignored the problem. Nothing got done.

Increasingly, extreme right-wing racist parties started organizing around some teams. Millwall, for example was in a depressed area of south-east London where racist parties actually won local council seats, and there was clear identification between fans and, for example, the fascist National Front. The English national team found that many of its traveling fans were hooligans affiliated with racist parties and even the law abiding traveling fans often found that the locals were there to greet their reputation with violence. But eventually by the late 1970s all clubs had a hooligan core in their supporters. Notably the most successful English team, Liverpool, was supposed to be “different” with allegedly more sporting fans. But by the 1980s they were as infected as any other club, and violence at the European Cup final in Brussels in 1985 caused a stampede of fans of their Italian opponents – Juventus again – that ended with 39 dead. English teams voluntarily left European competitions until the early 1990s. After a fire disaster during a game at Bradford in 1985 where 56 people died, and a later disaster at Hillsborough stadium in Sheffield in 1989 where 96 Liverpool fans died crushed up against a steel fence designed to stop hooligans invading the field, it was clear to even the British government that something had to be done.

Several changes were made. Almost all major stadiums were converted to all-seats with no standing room and all the fences around the field were taken down. Clubs began to employ armies of stewards to surround and police their fans, and set up full command posts with closed circuit TV surveillance. Police began to treat football hooligans as real criminals – instead of boys out for a little “fun” – hunting down the gang leaders, and putting them in jail. Passports were confiscated from hooligans found causing trouble outside of the U.K. Fans accused of violence or racist language are banned from attending games, often for life.

Perhaps most importantly, the clubs began to change their business model. Ticket prices went up – a lot. It used to be the equivalent of $5 to stand on the terraces in the late 1980s. now it’s more like $60 to get a seat at any Premier League game. And with that the average age of the attendee increased from the early twenties to late thirties. Now you see women and young kids at games – not many of those were standing on the terraces in my day. With increased money from ticket prices and satellite TV contracts, better players began to come to play in England, attracting more fans. Attendances are almost double what they were in the 1980s.

This doesn’t mean that there is no violence in English society. As Tony Blair points out, there’s plenty of anti-social behavior. It just means that the major sport has successfully more or less disassociated itself from it.

So if Italy truly has the will, the English have shown them the way.

Share  Posted by Matt Holt at 11:22 AM | Permalink

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