With most of the major European domestic leagues done and dusted for 2011/12, all thoughts will turn to the upcoming European Championships set to be staged in Poland & Ukraine. For the first time the competition, seen by many as second only to the World Cup in terms of being the ultimate prize for a nation to win, is being staged in the former Soviet bloc. Not only that, this summer will be the second time that hosting duties will be shared between two countries, with half the matches due to be staged in Poland and the other half in the Ukraine.
There is a chance that this may lead to some travel and infra-structural problems, due to the number of fans not only travelling to the respective countries in time for the finals, but also travelling between and across the two nations in order to see matches once they have arrived. For example: Team England announced some time ago that they shall be staying in Krakow, it is therefore very likely that a majority of travelling English fans will also stay there. However, all of England’s group games will take place hundreds of miles away in Ukraine, where travel infra-structure is known to be much weaker than in Poland, meaning long, possibly troublesome round-trips.
While these travel and infra-structural problems, they involve other teams than merely the English, may cause headaches come the summer, there is another potential problem on the horizon and it may prove to be much more serious. The problem I am referring to is one that up until the turn of the millennium would have been disussed to death by this stage, three weeks before the tournament, but now, strangely, it seems to have dropped way down the list of talking points, as if it has gone away forever, never to return.
I am, of course, referring to football hooliganism or to put it another way, fan violence. Once referred to with a sneering arrogance by the media and the chattering classes, both foreign and domestic, as “the English disease”, football hooliganism has not gone away, in fact, if anything, the opposite may be true. Ok so, those of us who watch the Premier League week in week out or the £multi-million cash cow that is the Champions’ League, rarely see much fan violence beamed into our homes from these show-piece matches, however, it is very much still alive and kicking I can assure you.
Whilst in England the authorities have gone a long way towards stamping out hooliganism, certainly in and around the major grounds, and the scenes of tribal warfare which occurred on matchdays at train stations and pubs around the country in the 1970s and 80s seem relegated to the annals of history, the potential for violence to become part of English football once again is plainly there. Football is a microcosm of society as a whole, violence within football crowds and supporters can be correlated with wider problems of a socio-economic nature that occur within society.
Anger, hatred and violence don’t come from nowhere, feelings and actions such as these emerge from dis-enfranchisement, feelings of powerlessness, low self esteem, hopelessness and a need to belong. It is far too easy to write hooliganism off as simply football’s problem and not society’s, or say there’s nothing that can be done, they’re animals anyway; a line that was all too often adopted during the dark days, which, by the way, coincided with Britain’s worst economic period since the 1930s, with spiralling unemployment, particularly among young, working class males.
We’ve seen fan violence and threatening behaviour between two sets of Premier League supporters, albeit not during a Premier League match, in the not so distant past. A Carling Cup match in 2010 between Birmingham and Aston Villa erupted into violence after the final whistle, with Birmingham City fans storming the pitch after a day of trouble in the second city leading up to kick-off.
One police officer likened the scenes to the old days saying: “There are perhaps cops who have been in the job 25 or 30 years who went back to the future there”. Which just shows that even where the biggest efforts have been made to deal with the problem, it can manifest itself at the drop of a hat. These are the worst scenes of straight up fan violence at a major game in England the recent past, but away from the cameras, they are certainly not the only ones.
As far as this summer’s European Championships are concerned, the potential trouble from England fans is nothing but the tip of the iceberg. “The English disease” is no longer that. Fans from across Europe have developed and honed their own brands of football violence and hooliganism.
Some, like the Russians have based their firms on the old English firms started decades ago and see themselves as continuing the tradition of football violence. Each firm has a leadership committee and they communicate with each other to set up times and locations for massive brawls, between firms.
The Russian firms see themselves as honourable and have a code of rules, which includes forbidding the use of weapons.The violence usually takes place away from grounds, in order to avoid the police. However, they also see themselves as the new kings of hooloiganism and may well be keen for the chance to take on and beat the English at their own game. Add to that the potential for an explosive reaction should their team be knocked out of the competition, as witnessed by the riots in areas of Moscow following the side’s elimination from Euro 08, and you have a heady brew indeed.
The Ultras have been a major force in Italian football almost since its inception. These firms operate in the fan bases of clubs and have varying degrees of power within the club structure depending on where you go. In a recent home match in Genoa, for example, the Ultras stopped the game and demanded that the home team remove their shirts as they were not deemed fit to wear them.
Fan violence in Italy, although always prevalent, has reached new levels in recent years, with pitched battles at train stations, service stations and several fan related murders. Although the Ultras tend to be very closely linked to their respective clubs, there is certainly the potential for this to spill out on the international scene in the summer, especially given the current state of the economic situation in Italy.
Hooliganism and violence in Germany is not something that is often talked about, however, that does not make it any less of a reality. Hooliganism in the Bundesliga and the German second tier has been on the rise over the last two seasons. The most serious incident came in the German cup match between Dynamo Dresden and Borussia Dortmund last season and resulted in Dynamo being banned from this year’s competition.
The violence of sections of German fans is by no means restricted to club sides, with followers of the national team involved in rioting after a friendly in Slovenia in the run up to the 2006 World Cup. There were also clashes between Polish and German fans during the 2006 World Cup held in Germany, and Euro 2008. German fans were involved, as were English fans, in running battles with French police at World Cup 98.
The host nations of this summer’s tournament are not exempt from the phenomenon either. Polish fans are amongst the worst for club related football violence in Europe. All the major teams have firms, with Legia Warsaw and Wisla Krakow amongst the most notorious. Stadiums were closed after a pitch invasion sparked a riot between opposing fans at the end of last year’s Polish Cup final.
Polish hooligans are known for carrying weapons and their violence is certainly not restricted to club matches. As already mentioned, there were clashes with the German fans at World Cup 06 and at Euro 2008, although which side was more at fault is up for debate. I’ve seen at first hand the potential for trouble from Polish support as they played against Northern Ireland in Belfast in a World Cup 2010 qualifier, a night which saw plenty of sporadic violence between fans in the city.
Ukraine has a fairly serious problem with fan violence too and here, perhaps more so than in the other countries mentioned already, the hooligan firms are synonymous with Neo-Nazism and racism. Racism and far right groups enjoy a level of support in the Ukraine and now these groups have infiltrated the football terraces.
English police have warned England fans of potential trouble from Ukrainian fans and these organised groups of supporters. In a league game between Dinamo Kiev and Karpaty Lvov last season, fascist thugs attacked a steward who was trying to remove fascist banners which had been draped on the stands by fans. In a more chilling twist it is rumoured that neo-nazi paramilitaries have been training thugs to take on all-comers at this year’s show-piece event.
These are the countries with the biggest and most well known hooligan elements, however, Denmark and Holland, amongst others, have their problems too, almost every country has a hooligan element to some degree . Football rivalries, national pride, perceived wrongdoing by another nation, racism and economics all play their parts in fan violence at an international level. With the nations involved and the hostilities that have built up between them over the last hundred years or more, for example, Poland/Russia/Germany (Poland and Russia having been drawn together in group A), Euro 2012 definitely has the potential to become a flashpoint.
If you add to the mix the current state of Western European economies; the large scale cuts, the deep recessions, the ever high and risng unemployment and general social unrest, in the Eurozone and beyond, which have led to angry demonstrations and riots across Europe in the last year, than that potential grows even further. Greece, Spain, Italy and Ireland are all finalists, all have had to borrow vast amounts of money and there is deep resentment, certainly in Germany, about the perception that bailing them out has uncermined their own country’s economic position.
With the tournament just over three weeks away, ongoing co-operation between Europe’s police forces will undoubtedly be keeping close tabs on known offenders. In England, it is thought that at least 2,500 hooligans have been given travel bans to stop them from attending matches. However with money, resources and infra-structure not so readily available for the task at hand in both Poland and, in particular, Ukraine, the job might be more than they can handle. Let’s hope not.
You can read more on the subject by checking out the links below the picture.
Dresden Image by studio79. Ultras image by Neric Blein. English image by Ismael Celis.