The return of the soccer rioters.

The stadium scene.
Oct. 19 2010 4:34 PM

The Return of the Soccer Rioters

Serbia's far right updates the sport's tradition of thuggery.

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So the thugs in Genoa were the heirs of a kind of tradition. But if last week's riots exemplified anything, it was the haphazardness of sports violence when placed in the service of politics. Everyone agrees that the Serbian hooligans were taking orders from right-wing leaders in Belgrade (who, like many right-wing groups in Europe, have ties to organized crime). But it's not clear that the rioters themselves all had the same objective or that they even knew what their objective was. The hulk with the ski mask and wire cutters, whom police hauled out of the luggage compartment of a bus during post-match fighting, said that he had nothing against the Italians. Other rioters claimed that they were trying to stop the match in order to drive out Tomislav Karadzic,the head of the national soccer federation, who is loathed by Red Star fans. But the hooligans who attacked the Serbian bus were apparently motivated by a desire to terrorize goalkeeper Vladimir Stojković, a former Red Star player who recently moved to Partizan. And some fans might merely have been angry about the team's recent 3-1 home loss to Estonia.

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There are other possible motives: Hillary Clinton* was visiting Belgrade on the day of the match. The 10-year anniversary of Milosevics fall from power had just passed. Serbia's Constitutional Court was scheduled to consider a proposal to ban 14 ultras groups. And the riot must have had some connection to the gay-pride parade attacks of the weekend before. In other words, it was a confused demonstration in which political resentments and sports-related resentments were ambiguously fused. It took place amid a fury of ultra-nationalist imagery, but the precise significance of most of that imagery is anyone's guess.

This uncertainty won't stop the debate about whether a new wave of soccer hooliganism is headed for Europe, or about the best way to promote security at matches, or where the blame for this whole stupid episode really lies. Like the reasons behind the riot, those are important questions to everyone except the rioters themselves.

And no one seems to know what they're thinking.

*Correction, Oct. 20: The article originally misspelled Hillary Clinton's first name.

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Brian Phillips writes regularly about soccer for Slate. He blogs at The Run of Play.