Soccer Fans Out of Control In Europe

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When a one-euro coin hurtled down from the stands in Rome's Stadio Olimpico in September and bloodied the forehead of a referee, some fans saw it as little more than bad luck. It cost their team, AS Roma, a penalty of playing two home games before an empty stadium. "Think of all the stuff that gets thrown on the field," a fan later griped, "and only ours hits the target."

Americans taken aback by events like the NBA brawl can find some solace in the fact that they have been spared the violence that routinely accompanies soccer games in Europe, where fans throw bottles and knives at the opposing team — unless they can find something bigger. "You have people who don't even watch the game," says Sergio Campana of Italy's players union. "They just come to cause havoc."

In England hooligans still cause mayhem outside stadiums, but the Premier league has managed to contain the violence inside by retrofitting stadiums American style, with assigned seats instead of terraces for standing, and by offering more season-ticket plans. Yet the learning curve has been tragic. A brutal 1985 melee in Brussels, in which Liverpool fans charged at supporters of Italy's Juventus, left 39 people dead in the panic. Nearly 100 fans died in a crowd-control disaster in Sheffield in 1989.

But elsewhere in Europe fans have got uglier. Some in France direct taunts known as "cris des singes"--monkey yelps — at the growing crop of African players, who face similar insults in Spain and Italy. In France top club Paris St.-Germain has hard-core neo-Nazi fans who chant racist and homophobic slurs and bombard visiting players with objects of all kinds.

What accounts for such extreme behavior? Traditional rivalries, for one thing, have long mirrored societal rifts. Glasgow Celtic fans are Catholic, and Rangers fans are Protestant. In Rome it was communist vs. fascist; in Madrid nationalist vs. Catalan or Basque. Yet as those old markers fade, the violence seems to continue, fueled by little more than alcohol and malice.

Critics say team officials have been slow to crack down for fear of alienating their fans. European writers have spent years trying to explain fan violence. Some see it as a proxy for race or class. Others, like author Bill Buford, who described his four years with English soccer hooligans in the book Among the Thugs, came away believing it was the symptom of a "bored, empty, decadent generation." The culture is "so deadened," he wrote, "that it uses violence to wake itself up."