Thursday, February 21, 2008
What Happened to the Hooligans?
In a recent email discussion between friends, the topic of hooliganism in soccer came up. One friend, let's call him "Fabio," mentioned in that he was fortunate enough to attend the Arsenal v. AC Milan Champions League match last night which was a thrilling 0-0 draw (no sarcasm there - if you don't think a 0-0 match can be exciting, you should watch more NASCAR). What you must understand is that Fabio has an interesting job that forces him to live in Brazil, travel around the world and do things like go to major sporting events for free - everyone hates Fabio because of this (or at least I do.)
Fabio's seats (as he pointed out, that ass) were very close to the field, on the lower level of the stadium. A concerned friend responded by asking Fabio if it wasn't dangerous to be sitting on the lower levels, as you could have beverages (or the warmer by-product of previously-consumed beverages) intentionally leaked on you, or be hit by any number of projectiles. The answer was no - he was fine. This drew surprise and skepticism among the group: a big-time soccer match in London at night? Shouldn't there be some hooliganism? Some shenaniganism? ( I made up one of the words in the above paragraph - can you guess which one?)
These things do happen in soccer. If you watch the sports segment of Spanish channel news, you'll notice that the field during a South American soccer game often looks like a pig sty (literally - there are barn animals on there sometimes). In Italy, the "Ultra" fans have been known to wreak havoc from the stands - last year, in the dying minutes of a Champions league game against AC Milan, fans from Inter Milan began to shoot flares onto the field - one said flare hit AC Milan's goalkeeper. In addition, as an artifact of Mussolini's time in charge, the game of soccer in Italy is at least somewhat intertwined with the ideology of fascism (at least for some folk). As a result, its not totally uncommon to see swastikas or other ugly reminders of World War II in the stands of an Italian soccer game.
In Spain, player abuse is rampant. Sometimes, I have to admit, it's kind of funny - in an interview, a player who transferred from Barcelona to hated rivals Real Madrid mentioned that playing against his old team in Barcelona, as he prepared to take a corner kick, a (we must say creative) fan threw a pig's head at him. That's pretty good...but sometimes it's less funny: it's fairly well-documented that black players are often racially taunted during games by fans. In a recent friendly between the Spanish and English national teams (hosted in Spain), England's black players were treated to monkey noises when they were in possession of the ball. In a post-game interview, one of the English players noted "it was almost as bad as the time we played that game in Boston." (Sorry, couldn't resist.)
English soccer (which is perhaps the most popular brand of the sport in this country) and its fans developed a formidable reputation for hooliganism and shenaniganism in the 70's and 80's - possibly the most notable and tragic example being the Heysel Stadium disaster before the Champions League Final in 1985. A group of Liverpool fans essentially rioted in the stadium's stands, causing a collapse and the death of 39 people. Perhaps as a result of this incident (which resulted in a five year exclusion of English club teams from European competition) and others, English fans have been tagged as the preeminent bad boys of soccer.
However, this seems to have evolved into a misconception at this point - while it took a tragedy of this magnitude to snap them into action, the Football Association (what a great name for a sport's governing body - not adding "English" at the beginning presumes there is no other legitimate association for the sport, just pure genius) cracked down on fan behavior. They made a conscious effort to extricate the culture of "footy" from the culture of alcohol and violence (you can still can get your belligerent drunk on at pubs, by the way). There's no drinking in stadiums for example, and police presence at a stadium on game day is formidable. As a result, much of theshenaniganism and hooliganism seen in soccer arenas around the globe (including Saturday morning rec leagues in American suburbia) are no longer a part of English soccer. That's why Fabio was so comfortable in his seats last nights, and he was able to enjoy the game.
That's not the the only reason though - his seat was actually comfortable. It wasn't a steel bench. That's because the game was played in a brand-new $50 trillion dollar (estimated figure) stadium - with luxury boxes. Obviously, tickets don't cost what they used to. In England, perhaps more than any other country, soccer has become big business. Many of the top clubs are listed on stock exchanges. Others list big-shot financiers as their owners, and the biggest of all, Manchester United, was recently LBO-ed (by a Yank, no less). The resulting focus on the bottom line means two things for English soccer: 1) It's in the best interest of owners and club officials to keep the fans in line - being banned from European soccer means less revenue, after all. 2) Increased ticket prices and catering to the the deep-pocketed corporate crowd (like that douche Fabio) means that Joe Pintglass can't get tickets to watch Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium (Fly Emirates!) anymore, much like Joe Sixpack can't afford tickets to see the Broncos at Invesco Field (Invest Invesco!). So the demographic profile of stadiums has changed and, for better or worse, seems to be more civilized...if not a bunch of wankers.