A curious article appeared on the online version of the Wall Street Journal earlier today on the subject of the economic woes that European football is facing. It was, largely, a thoroughly reasonable article, talking of the gap between rich and poor in terms of the tensions that this may come to create within the infrastructure of the pan-European game (even withstanding the at best mixed week that the biggest European clubs endured, which can easily be justified as unfortunate timing), the debt levels that clubs have racked and are racking up in the pursuit of success and the unsustainable amount of money being squandered on players’ wages. As a primer for the uninformed reader on the state of European football, it makes for reasonable reading.
The tone of the article, however, was spoilt by two turns of phrase at its top and tail, which attempted, somewhat tenuously, to link the issue of crowd trouble with the economic problems faced by European football as well as the continent in a broader sense. ‘After all,’ writes Alen Mattich, ‘Europe’s stadiums have been breeding grounds for some of its ugliest tribal violence’, whilst Mattich rounds off with the apocalyptic sounding warning that, ‘It’s worth remembering that one of the first battles between Croatia and Serbia in the Yugoslav War was fought in May 1990 between supporters of Dinamo Zagreb and those of Red Star Belgrade’, all of which could lead us to ask the question of whether there is a link between the financial problems of both the continent of Europe and the institutions of European football with the occasional outbursts of violence that we still occasionally witness before, during and after matches.
This seems like something of a leap of logic, to say the very, very least. Whilst there are matches that seem like a magnet for trouble and are, therefore, treated by the police and the authorities as exercises in containment rather than a leisure activity that people might actually wish to go and watch for enjoyment, there is often little rhyme or reason behind incidences of crowd trouble at matches and, while many, many hours of academic time have been spent trying to analyse the socio-political reasons behind why some people get involved in trouble that is tangenitally related to football, many of the answers that have come from such studies have been at best inconclusive and at worst hopelessly contradictory.
Moreover, the presumptions of those that have attempted to link the more unsociable elements of football support with social class have often ended up reaching conclusions that are both simplistic and insulting. The assumption that the gentrification of football – the most obvious manifestation of which is higher ticket prices – would lead to a reduction to violence at football matches was commonplace, and was obviously misleading as well. For one thing, we could argue that when crowd violence was at its most rife, during the mid to late 1980s, the economy of this country was, while not great, hardly in the dismal condition in which it finds itself today. Rather than attempting to draw parallels – whether fallaciously or erroneously – to suggest a link between the broader economic condition of a country or continent and the reduction (or, it could be argued, the perceived reduction, since it has never completely gone away) of violence at matches over the last two decades, it might, perhaps, be more fruitful to consider improvements in stewarding and policing, a change in attitude in the way that supporters are treated by the clubs that host them and changes to the law to more effectively punish those arrested in such situations as possible – or probable – causes.
None of this is to say that the garden is completely rosy. Stewarding and policing still fall short on occasion, and a culture in which the importance of the game is inflated beyond any sense of proportion, perhaps, also helps to keep the embers of crowd violence flickering – the Marxists amongst us may even choose to consider it a form of false conciousness. Moreover, simplistic headline-writing in some sections of the press have allowed the perception to take hold that any young male interested in drinking too much and/or fighting must, by definition, also be a football supporter. Consider, for example, the way in which the English Defence League’s troublesome membership and football hooligans have become intertwined over the last couple of years or so – sometimes truthfully, sometimes less so. A culture in which rolling news encourages knee-jerk reactions and instant answers – which we referred to in terms of the sad death of the Cardiff City supporter Michael Dye at Wembley last week – could also be considered to be at the very least potentially inflammatory.
Ultimately, though, trouble at football matches is society’s problem, and cannot merely siphoned off to assuage the feelings of those that would seek to disassociate themselves from the broader problems that our society should attempt to deal with and frequently doesn’t. When London erupted into violence last month, the extent to which some seemed to advocate a systematic refusal to even consider the underlying causes of such shocking violence – here’s attack dog Kelvin McKenzie apparently losing his mind on BBC Two’s Newsnight was, for example – was one of the more depressing aspects of a thoroughly dispiriting few days. This was violence that came about for, in all likelihood, a myriad of different reasons – some social, some economic. These riots, however, were far from normal in terms of the way that our society behaves. Football hooliganism cannot be regarded in the same way.
Just as no-one is born a criminal or a rioter, no-one is born a football hooligan, and there are often broader social reasons behind outbreaks of trouble at matches. In the case of ‘one of the first battles between Croatia and Serbia in the Yugoslav War [which] was fought in May 1990 between supporters of Dinamo Zagreb and those of Red Star Belgrade’, watching videos of what happened that day back with the benefit – if such a word is appropriate – of the knowledge of the hell that was to follow makes it even more horrific to watch now than it may have done at the time. One of the more regrettable facts of life within the bubble that football habituates, however, is that it seems likely that hooliganism will always be with us in some form or other. This may be, for a variety of reasons, linked to society in a broader sense. It seems doubtful, however, that the macro-economic crisis that Europe faces or the issues that European football needs to face up to will have much influence on this either way.
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