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.

Balaclava clad Serbian fan Ivan Bogdanov gestures towards riot police during the UEFA Euro 2012. Click image to expand.
Serbian nationalists riot at the Serbia-Italy soccer game

Last Tuesday, a riot broke out at a soccer game in Italy. Its perpetrators were a group of right-wing Serbs who had traveled to Genoa to watch their national team play Italy—or, as it turned out, not to watch it play, since the game was called off after just seven minutes. The Serbs threw burning flares onto the pitch and used a metal bar to try to smash the fence that separated them from the Italian supporters. A large, heavily tattooed man in a black ski mask climbed the Perspex barrier at the front of the stands and started slicing through the perimeter netting with wire cutters, pausing to give the occasional Nazi salute. As Italian riot police moved to surround the visitors, the Serbs set fire to an Albanian flag and unfurled a banner reading "Kosovo is Serbia."

It was one of those moments in soccer when everything seems to go wrong: Warnings are missed, policies backfire, authorities are confounded. Earlier in the day, ultra-nationalist Serbs had fought with Italian police in the streets and attacked their own team bus, yet the same group was able to enter the stadium with unconfiscated knives, clubs, and explosives. Days before the match, hundreds of thugs, many with ties to soccer hooliganism, had attacked a gay pride parade in Belgrade, setting cars on fire and hurling rocks at police. Since January, Serbians no longer need visas to travel to most EU countries, making it far easier for these same thugs to follow the national team. And yet the only thing the Italian soccer federation seemed to do differently in preparation for this match was to invite 1,000 local school children.

European soccer and right-wing violence share a long and troubled history. If fascism is the future refusing to be born, as Aneurin Bevan said, then soccer has often been its anti-midwife. Mussolini used the 1934 World Cup as a sort of Blackshirt matinee spectacular, and Franco bolstered his regime with the popularity of Real Madrid. In more recent years, what soccer historian David Goldblatt calls "the skinhead-hooligan nexus" has been a constant thorn in the side of the game's organizers and of regular, non-Nazi-sympathizer fans.

Soccer doesn't make people violent any more than it makes them political. But the game does combine flamboyant iconography, militaristic virtue, and fierce tribal loyalty. Those ingredients form an unlit Molotov cocktail that tends to light up in countries whose economies and political institutions are in decay—places with a lot of impoverished, angry, unemployed young men. In these locales, soccer games can become recruiting grounds for some very unpleasant groups.

In his book Among the Thugs, Bill Buford describes watching the white-supremacist National Front courting English hooligans in the 1980s. (They throw a neo-Fascist disco party, which is even less quaint than it sounds.) Similar recruiting efforts have taken place in Italy, where a culture of warring ultras—hard-core fans who stand and sing throughout matches and stage elaborately choreographed displays—was a target for the radical MSI party in the 1970s. In the early 1980s, white skinhead fans of Paris Saint-Germain joined Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front. In Israel, the club Beitar Jerusalem has longstanding ties to right-wing Zionist organizations. For years, neo-Nazi groups attracted West German soccer hooligans; today, Polish soccer gangs are integrated with the far-right NOP. At different times, depending on social health and policing strategy, similar stories could be told about the Netherlands, Spain, Romania, and any number of other countries.

Most of the time, the relationship between soccer hooligans and fascist ideologues is relatively shallow and ephemeral. The right-wing groups get pawns who are willing to throw rocks at police, and the hooligans get a cause that legitimizes what they want to do anyway, which is hit somebody. As Buford demonstrates in Among the Thugs, where the soccer toughs are more interested in slam-dancing than in reading National Front recruitment literature, the hooligans' effectiveness as soldiers is limited by the quality of drifting rage that makes them so appealing to extremist groups in the first place. They're hedonistic nihilists, not true believers.

In this light, the history of politicized soccer violence among fans from the former Yugoslavia—including the Serbs who rioted in Genoa—might seem like a sensational exception. Fighting between ultras from the Serbian club Red Star Belgrade and the Croatian club Dinamo Zagreb arguably helped precipitate the breakup of the country during the early 1990s. During the early wave of fighting, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic mobilized Red Star ultras into a paramilitary force. Under the command of a former bank robber and prison escapee known as Arkan, they carried out brutal ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and elsewhere. Franklin Foer, who writes about Arkan in How Soccer Explains the World, describes his fan-soldiers singing stadium songs on the front. Later in the decade, as Milosevic's popularity collapsed along with Serbian unity, ultras from the Belgrade club Partizan fired a rocket-propelled grenade across the stadium into a stand full of Red Star fans. In 2000, during the demonstrations that accompanied Milosevic 's downfall, Red Star ultras (now fighting for the opposition) stormed the Serbian Parliament.

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.

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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