The Spot
Slate's soccer blog.

June 16 2016 4:19 PM

Does the Fan Violence at Euro 2016 Augur a Return to Soccer’s Bad Old Days?

For the few of us Americans who were paying attention to soccer in the 1980s, the game was often synonymous with violence. My memories of the very first live professional soccer game I attended are not of sparkling offense (this was late 1980s Arsenal) or dogged defense, but of fear. I can’t tell you who won that day, but I can tell you about the terraces crumbling around the railings of the stands, the loutish fans that groped a female friend of mine, the frightfully narrow turnstiles that would become meat grinders if there was a rush to the exits, and the helmeted mounted policemen patrolling the streets before and after the match. This was all part of the thrilling and repulsive atmosphere of English football, and it was fascinating in the Latin sense of the word: It cast an evil spell.

This evil was the subject of the first book I ever read about soccer, Bill Buford’s Among the Thugs, which I picked up in the early 1990s just as English football was cleaning up its act in the wake of the tragedies at Hillsborough and Heysel. Changes in stadium design, rules about drinking at games, better security measures, and efforts to recruit fans into the fight against hooliganism mean that, with a few grisly exceptions, attending a football match in Europe doesn’t usually mean taking your life into your hands. With the creation of the Premier League in 1992, the game began its rehabilitation in the land of its birth, becoming the multibillion-dollar, family-friendly, largely-inaccessible-in-person-to-the-working-class stadium spectacle that we have today. While nostalgia for the days when schoolboys could attend games for less than a pound still runs high in some quarters, very few pine for the days when a Saturday afternoon spent in the stands could very well mean a Saturday night spent in the hospital.

These days Americans who consider themselves soccer fans are likely to support a Premier League club and may have no memories of the bad old days. The beatings and, to a lesser extent, the racism seem to belong to another time, or perhaps another place. But racist chants continue to be heard frequently in Spain, fans in Italy are knifed, and overall soccer violence in continental Europe seems to be on the rise. This year’s Euros have so far been as notable for fan violence as for the quality of play. After brawls between Russian and English fans both inside and outside the stadium in Marseille last week, UEFA considered banning both sides from the tournament straightaway and on Tuesday handed down a suspended disqualification to Russia, which means any more in-stadium violence will result in the Russians being kicked out of the tournament. (Though Wednesday’s game against Slovakia was quieter in that regard, one fan did manage to smuggle a flare into the stadium.)

Fans clash after the UEFA EURO 2016 Group B match between England and Russia at Stade Velodrome on Saturday in Marseille, France.

Lars Baron/Getty Images

France had been preparing for violence at this year’s tournament, but not the sort of hooliganism that until recently seemed to be on the wane. After last November’s terrorist attacks in Paris, French authorities were on guard for something much worse than drunken punch-ups and vandalism. If we are fortunate, nothing that horrible will mar the Euros, but so far it’s the crowds themselves that are more violent than any in recent memory. To make matters worse, this violence was being met with an initial shrug—followed by encouragement, with a dash of homophobia thrown in—by the very Russian officials who will be hosting the next World Cup. They have since begun to walk back this laissez-faire attitude, but how hooligans will respond to their government’s pleas and what all this means for when the world gathers in Russia in 2018 is anyone’s guess.

In the midst of all this, we are forced to consider that large gatherings of people can easily become targets for larger attack. One of the targets of the Paris terrorists was a France-Germany match at the Stade de France, the stadium where this year’s Euros kicked off. Those terrorists may have chosen soccer because it is a symbol of capitalism, even if a number of French players are Muslims. Soccer used to have important class dimensions and in some places different clubs are associated with different political positions, or with different religions. But most of the violence in stadiums is generally perpetrated by one group that has a manufactured hatred of another based on an allegiance to a club or country, rather than to football itself.

For close to 20 years, Europeans were largely successful in making soccer safe, but that seems to be changing. Perhaps the new economic uncertainty—a kind similar to that which plagued Britain in the Thatcher years and which may have contributed to the anger that fueled that era’s hooliganism—is behind the comeback in endogenous football violence. Of course, any danger from hooligans is eclipsed by the exogenous violence of terrorists. In the case of both hooliganism and terrorism, though, our public gathering places get wrested from us. The changes in England after Hillsborough and Heysel show that it is possible to make football stadiums safer. The terrorist attack at the Stade de France showed that it will never be possible to make them completely safe.

Read more Slate coverage of Euro 2016 and Copa America.

June 15 2016 12:58 PM

I Cannot Wait to See How England Flames Out of Euro 2016

In this world nothing can be said to be certain except for death and taxes and England fizzling in a major soccer tournament. Will this year’s exit be a mundane, ignoble one as in 2014, or something spectacular like the Wayne Rooney red card in 2006? Beckham in 1998?

We’ll find out soon enough.

June 14 2016 5:46 PM

Wow, Sepp Blatter Sure Is Making a Lot of Crazy Claims These Days

Discredited former FIFA president Sepp Blatter has claimed that he witnessed the fixing of a draw for a European football competition. … Though he declined to name the competition, he suggested that the process had been manipulated by means of cooling the balls. “Balls are put in the freezer before the draw, and at the slightest touch you can tell if the balls are hot or cold. By touching them you know exactly what you have. … I never touched the balls, though others did.”—Vice Sports, June 14, 2016

June 14 2016 4:56 PM

Can Anyone Stop Messi and Argentina at Copa America?

At its highest level of competition, football is a game played by the many and won by the very few. In 90 years of history, only eight teams have won the World Cup. Brazil, Italy, and Germany have taken 13 of the 20 tournaments played since 1930. The European Championships have just a bit more parity. Since its formal inception in 1960, nine teams have won the tournament, with Germany (of course) and Spain alone owning six trophies. There have been some endearing outliers, like the gorgeous Danish team of 1992 or the virtuoso Dutch of 1988, but mostly the usual suspects emerge victorious. This year, the excitement around various young contenders, especially the Belgians, appeared justified. Unfortunately, came the Italians (of course) and dismantled the Red Devils with a quintessentially Italian constriction. So much for diversity.

June 13 2016 7:30 AM

How Iceland Transformed From a Soccer Weakling to a European Strongman

The European Championships start Friday, with hosts France taking on Romania in the opener and most of the world’s best teams in action soon after. Germany’s team is close (that is, lacking Miroslav Klose) to the same roster that won the World Cup two years ago. Spain is the two-time reigning European champion. Belgium’s golden generation has finally come of age. France has many of this year’s breakout talents and is favored to win the whole thing. England will presumably show up too, at least for a little while.

June 13 2016 1:40 AM

Rooting for Peru Has Always Been an Act of Fatalism. Until Last Night.

When I was a kid, my father often explained the essential injustice of the world to me with the phrase, “Así es el fútbol.” Literally: That’s soccer. Its use is wide-ranging, covering all kinds of disappointments, large and small:

The girl you like doesn’t like you back?

Así es el fútbol.


June 12 2016 11:43 PM

Watch the Blatant Handball That Eliminated Brazil From Copa America

Brazil needed a win or draw against Peru to finish at the top of its group and advance to the quarterfinals of the Copa America Centenario. Instead, the Brazilians lost 1-0 and are out of the tournament, eliminated by the hand of Peruvian striker Raúl Mario Ruidíaz. Ruidíaz fisted the ball into the back of the net in the 75th minute, and referee Andres Cunha eventually allowed the goal to stand. While this was an obvious handball, it’s hard to blame the referee for failing to see it in real time. The rules of the game, too, didn’t allow him to correct his mistake. While Copa America is using instant-reply technology to review whether the ball crosses the plane of the goal line, handballs are not reviewable. And unlike the European Championship, Copa America does not have extra referees stationed on the goal line.

June 11 2016 3:54 PM

The Switzerland-Albania Match at Euro 2016 Told a Personal, Massive Balkan Story

One Sunday in June 2000, I biked to The Abbey Pub on the northwest side of Chicago to watch Spain play Slovenia in the UEFA Euro Championship. Back in the day, it was much harder to find ways to watch the Euro Championship in the U.S. The Abbey, an Irish pub, was one of the few places showing the matches. I got there early—the game was to start at 8 a.m.—to have breakfast, but it was already packed with Irishmen clutching their pints, watching a live broadcast of an important game of hurling live from Dublin. Many of them were inebriated, shouting at the gigantic screen. It didn’t look good. 

June 11 2016 8:00 AM

Soccer at Any Level Is a Game of Maybe

Nagbe autocorrects to maybe, which is somehow encouraging. Maybe this is insignificant. Maybe I shouldn’t be looking for meaning in an encouraging autocorrect. But soccer at any level is a game of maybe.

The 2016 USMNT fan is not fucking around with lucky charm octopi or witch doctors, but he might want to be. He might want to see that there are comforts in such absurdity, when the limits of control are obvious.

June 10 2016 3:53 PM

Will Donald Trump Hurt the United States’ Chances to Host the 2026 World Cup?

I’m old and naïve enough to look to sports as a respite from other news. And in this election year, there’s a lot I want to avoid thinking about. Which is why this article about Sunil Gulati, head of U.S. Soccer, is so distressing. I figured if there was any topic that would be Trump-free, it would be soccer, a sport in which the idea of making America great again is meaningless. But, as if to prove that my cluelessness is greater than the Republican nominee’s ego, I hadn’t considered that any sport in which foreigners, and especially Mexicans, regularly make fools of Americans would draw the inevitable question: What will a Donald Trump presidency mean for America’s chances of hosting the World Cup?