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Wednesday, June 14, 2006


Take Them Out of the Ball Game

On the eve of the 2006 World Cup, German chancellor Angela Merkel stated that her country would not tolerate racist violence during the tournament, which it is hosting. She thus joined the pious chorus of government and soccer officials who have been trying over the past few months to exorcise the racist incidents plaguing the beautiful game. While world soccer chief Sepp Blatter is part of this choir, he has decided, nonetheless, against punishing teams whose supporters spew out racist abuse at World Cup games because, he claims, it would be difficult to distinguish the culprits among an international crowd of spectators. Where is Baron Pierre de Coubertin when we need him?

The founder of the Olympic Games was famously dismissive of spectators and of their value to organized sport. When the Olympics experienced the first example of nationalist friction at the London Games in 1908 (among the Americans and British, of all people), Coubertin blamed the crowds, not the athletes. Spectators, he wrote, tended to get overexcited, which clouded their already limited grasp of the principles of fair play. There were several other occasions when Coubertin, who spent his life promoting the purity of sport, doubted spectators’ contributions to athletes’ performances. Moreover, he thought that building big stadiums (presumably to house those excitable spectators) was a deplorable waste of resources.

Of course, Coubertin died in 1937 at the age of 74. He had lived, in other words, in an era when sports fans were extremely well-behaved by today’s standards. The 1930s were an era in which fans displayed extraordinary politeness to opposing teams. In the first World Cup, held in Uruguay in 1930, fans thronged the port of Montevideo and warmly applauded the arrival of the visiting national teams. In 1935, a soccer match between the English and German national sides, planned long before Hitler took power in Germany in 1933, went off without incident in London despite rising tension between the two countries. British spectators stood politely as the German national anthem was played, and as the large contingent of visiting German fans sang Deutschland über alles. When the game took place, there was no disruption.

British fans in the 1970s and 1980s were far less well-behaved, ushering in the era of “football hooliganism.” Gangs of supporters of several teams (and not necessarily those in the top tier) engaged in prearranged violence before, during, and after soccer matches, usually targeting rival gangs. Street-fights around the stadiums, as well as fights in the stadiums, often spilled over, accidentally or by design, into the playing fields. The violence was accompanied by a rich vocabulary of opprobrious epithets—and missiles—hurled at opponents, players, fans, and, naturally, referees. These acts peaked in Britain at the end of the 1980s, when the Thatcher government introduced strict legislation clamping down on them. The government also mandated widespread renovations and upgrading of soccer stadiums, which made tickets more expensive and eliminated the SRO spaces where hooligans thrived.

By that time, however, hooliganism, known as “the English disease,” had spread to the rest of Europe, initially through the behavior of British fans traveling to international matches, most notoriously when Liverpool fans stampeded toward Juventus fans at the Heysel stadium in Belgium just before the kickoff of the European Cup final in 1985. Thirty-nine Italian and Belgian fans died, and hundreds were injured. As a result, British teams were banned from playing in European club competitions for five years.

But homegrown hooliganism proliferated in almost all European countries, and it shared many characteristics with its British counterpart. Violence was accompanied by a barrage of abusive taunts of all kinds and was fueled by the infiltration of ultra-rightist groups. Chauvinistic and intolerant attitudes only grew in the post-Cold War era of nationalism and xenophobia directed against immigrant workers.

Coubertin was at least spared the pain of seeing his notions of “pure sport” defiled by the increasing commercialization of professional sport, and spectators’ transformation into consumers in an era of “free enterprise.” The modern spectator-consumer, obliged to pay through the nose, now tries to make the most of the “rights” that accrue to any paying customer.

Greece provides a good illustration of some of these trends. As Greek society liberalized following the end of the colonels’ dictatorship in 1974, Greek “fandom” became more aggressive. The absence of a police-state atmosphere at soccer matches gave rise to organized groups of fans chanting obscenities such as “Ei-sai ma-la-kas!” (You’re a wan-ker!) to the referee or an opposing player, something that had been unheard of until then. Soon the chants degenerated further into a purple vocabulary of lurid sexuality with which fans celebrated their own and their team’s masculinity, while at the same time asserting the femininity or homosexuality of their opponents.

In her book, The Empty Cradle of Democracy: Sex, Abortion and Nationalism in Greece, sociologist Alexandra Halkia has suggested that Greeks consider their sexuality as a Zorba-like idiosyncrasy, and an expression of their “freedom” from social constraints. Halkia does not examine soccer chants, focusing instead on a marginally more highbrow form of expression, the lyrics of contemporary rebetika. The Greek soccer world would have been a relevant and very helpful source of data, however. Fans of Olympiakos Piraeus, a soccer team that scores all too often (albeit with the occasional help of referees), greet their team’s goals with a chorus of “E-tsi ga-maei o Pi-re-as!” (That’s how Pi-rae-us fucks!).

With the police looking the other way, organized gangs of fans, patronized by club presidents, feel free to stage pitched battles in and out of stadiums and even in city centers. Their antics, and the indifference of the soccer authorities (not to mention the government) have persuaded most Greek soccer fans to stay in the safety of their living rooms and watch the games on television. Total attendance figures for Greek soccer matches have consequently dropped precipitously over the past 15 years, and even the national team’s victory in the Euro 2004 tournament has not helped matters.

To make things worse, Greek hooliganism recently turned nationalistic and racist, echoing a similar and deepening trend in Europe. When the Greek national team lost to Albania in September 2004, hundreds of Albanian immigrants living in Greece made the mistake of thinking they could celebrate their team’s victory in the streets, in the same way visiting Greek fans had been able to party in the streets of Lisbon after Greece beat Portugal in the final of Euro 2004. Greek soccer hooligans, however, abetted by ultra-rightists, attacked Albanians in several cities, injuring many people and even killing one person.

It is precisely this volatile mix of racism and nationalism that concerns Chancellor Merkel and everyone in charge of security at Germany’s World Cup. The 2005-2006 season of European soccer was marred by especially egregious instances of racist taunts, with Spaniards being the main offenders. In the worst incident, the home crowd in Zaragoza made grunting monkey sounds whenever Barcelona star Samuel Eto’o touched the ball. Eto’o, who is from Cameroon and had just been named African player of the year for the third consecutive time, began walking off the field and was only persuaded to stay by his teammates, two Zaragoza players, and the referee. At 0-0 with 13 minutes left to play, the game continued and ended with Barcelona defeating Zaragoza 2-0 and Eto’o scoring the second goal. Afterward, the Zaragoza team got off with a mere €9,000 fine.

This incident, and the light fine imposed by its soccer federation, propelled Spain into a most unwelcome spotlight. While the level of racist virulence is certainly the same in several countries in Europe, west and east, Spanish officials demonstrated an extraordinarily inept touch in dealing with the offenders. When Eto’o had been harassed in the same city during the previous season, Zaragoza had been fined a paltry €600. And when two players of the English national side suffered the same treatment playing against Spain in Madrid in 2004, the Spanish government sent a letter of apology to Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Despite a growing number of sociological studies on spectator behavior and racism in soccer, or the initiatives of a number of bodies (including the European Union and the Vatican), or, finally, the anti-racist campaigns of several organizations, no one seems certain whether an active or reactive policy is most effective, or how best to combine the two. That, of course, does not excuse Spain’s inability to do anything. But it does confuse the issue at a moment when the German hosts of the World Cup favor applying the full force of the law, as opposed to the mandarins of world soccer, whose business is to make money and who tend to think of spectators primarily as benign consumers.

Eto’o scoffed at the €9,000 fine imposed on Zaragoza for its repeat offense. The Barcelona striker suggested instead that the local team be banned from playing at home for a year. That, of course, would have inflicted a huge financial loss on Zaragoza, and was naturally ignored by the Spanish soccer authorities. It would have sent a powerful message, however, and made incidents at the World Cup less likely.

Coubertin would certainly have agreed with Eto’o. Irritated by the behavior of some unappreciative spectators at the Amsterdam Olympics of 1928 (whose faults, however, pale in comparison to those of their counterparts in Zaragoza), he wrote: “I would like it if we were to treat today’s spectators like great children, walking among them with enormous cards to teach them how to appreciate a splendid athletic feat, and how out of place on such occasions are those outbursts of crude nationalism that give our era a semi-barbaric stench.” The French baron could be very old-fashioned at times, but his attitude toward spectators sounds like good advice for the German chancellor, who understandably fears that her country will once again be identified with that “semi-barbaric stench” from the past.

Alexander Kitroeff teaches history at Haverford College and is a contributing editor to, which published his most recent book, Wrestling With the Ancients: Modern Greek Identity and the Olympics.
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