A Shame on Our Sport

Marseille erupted in violence yesterday after the 1–1 draw between Russia and England. Clashes started as soon as rival fans arrived in the port city on the Mediterranean days earlier. On Saturday morning, groups of fans from both sides started drinking, sparring, and clashing with police before heading to the stadium for the match. At the whistle to end the struggle on the field, reports say that Russian supporters launched towards the English section to begin the melee in the stands.

Papers in Russia blame the English fans for the violence, one going so far as to say that there were no Russian supporters involved. That the skirmishes were between “English fans and local Arabs.” (source). And of course, English papers blame the Russian fans. French papers have not been so partisan, laying the larger part of blame on the Russians. Ronan Evian from L’Equipe (source) writes that: “The term ‘hooligan’ is not inappropriate to describe the Russians who fought yesterday. These are real, die-hard types.” Evian continues, “they gathered to do what they do not do at home: fight in the city streets.” Le Monde (source) agreed with Evian saying that among Russian fans were “small, well-organised groups, such as about 30 fans of FC Locomotiv Moscow, wearing the colours of Orel Butchers, a well-known group in the country, who repeatedly charged at English fans with extreme violence.”

“The fans were rooting greatly, but there are people who do not come for the football.” — Vitaly Mutko, Russian Sports Minister

UEFA have raised charges against Russia for crowd disturbances, racist behavior, and setting off fireworks. And both England and Russia have been given disqualification warnings. Russia’s Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko responded by saying “It’s the right thing, there were flares, there was a flare gun, there had been clashes in the stands, it’s necessary to sort all of this out…” Given the threat level of a terrorist event during the this year’s championship, one has to wonder how supporters were able to bring a flare gun and smuggle flares into the stands. And why, given the heavy police and security presences, would supporters put their countrymen at risk by rioting in the streets prior to the match, pulling resources from the protection from the larger threat?

The answer is simple. The answer is that these are the worse type of soccer supporters. They are of the type who don’t really care about the sport, but care more for event. The event is an excuse to have more than a few drinks, wave the flag that they have chosen allegiance, be it club or country, and engage in physical confrontation. I have no doubt in my mind that there are those who boarded flights from their home countries with no other desire than to participate in these conflicts.

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Soccer is the perfect sport for these types of criminal. And yes, they are criminals. They are not supporters who are overly passionate about their team, they are sociopaths who use soccer as an excuse. I am passionate about soccer. I am passionate about the teams that I follow. I chant. I shout. I trade taunts with my counterparts on the other side. This site is a good example. Russ and I constantly go back and forth with barbs and banter about our two clubs. But there isn’t the switch within our minds that clicks into the desire to physically harm the other person. In hooligans, their passion is for the fight, not the game. The game only provides the fuel for their warped loyalty. It is the one sport where the fans show their allegiance and support unabashedly and proud, not just within the sporting venue, but within their very lives.

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As Sebastian Junger points out in his current book,(Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging), “We have a strong instinct to belong to small groups defined by clear purpose and understanding — “tribes.” This tribal connection has been largely lost in modern society…”

Soccer, especially on the international level, provides that tribal connection. By joining a side, we are selecting and pledging allegiance to a tribe. And when we travel outside of our home area to support our team, that connection is even stronger. But those who engage in hooliganism are outside of that tribe. They are a part of their own tribe. The tribe of hooligans. And they should be made to feel so, by us — those who are a part of the true tribe. We should shun them. We should ostracize them. We should make them feel unwelcome. We, as the tribe, should remove the sociopaths from within our group. It is not disloyal to turn against them. It is required.

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There is a very fine line between violence and the chanting, taunting, and displays of passion that soccer is famous. All of us know where that line is. Some willingly choose to cross. Those displays of solidarity — the marches to the stadium through rival territory, the gathering of supporters before the match to raise the level of excitement, the standing by your team through every outcome, the celebration after a win and the commiseration after a loss, the sense of belonging to something that is larger than yourself — are all good. The riots, fights, and violence are unacceptable. We are the ones to which the responsibility falls. We are the ones who must do something. We are the ones who must end this. The violence will only stop when we, the true supporters everywhere, provide no place for it to exist.