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A field day in the name of free kicks

IN THE VISOR: “The problem of hooliganism is best understood when placed in cultural and sociological realms.” Picture shows a French policeman facing unruly English fans in Marseille, France.

IN THE VISOR: “The problem of hooliganism is best understood when placed in cultural and sociological realms.” Picture shows a French policeman facing unruly English fans in Marseille, France.   | Photo Credit: LEON NEAL

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Hooliganism in football is a dangerous cocktail of machismo laced with national pride and, on occasion, racial prejudice

On June 11, when supporters of the English and the Russian football teams >clashed before and after the Euro 2016 Group B clash between the teams in Marseille, it rekindled memories of the violent bouts of hooliganism which dominated the football world in the 1970s and 1980s. It somewhat seemed apt — quite disturbingly, one must add — that it took the English, the erstwhile pioneers, and the Russians, the present-day torchbearers, to demonstrate that the problem of hooliganism, as much as a dying problem it is according to official figures, is still persistent, albeit on much smaller scale, but more widespread and mostly away from the public gaze.

The problem of hooliganism is best understood when placed in the cultural and sociological realms. The British Victorian era celebrated masculinity, and pain and brutality were very much part of football. In fact, in the 19th century, hacking — kicking opponents in the shin — was legitimate.

This norm was reasserted in the way football fans behaved. The male fan affirms his status as a man through his support for a football team and through that the nature of manhood. As Bill Buford, an American journalist and author, wrote in Among The Thugs, “Violence is their anti-social kick, their mind-altering experience, an adrenaline-induced euphoria that might be all the more powerful because it is generated by the body itself, with, I was convinced, many of the same addictive qualities that characterize synthetically produced drugs.”

Hooliganism as nationalism

While these explain the domestic hooliganism, of the kind between two club supporters, the worst of which was the 1985 disaster in Heysel stadium, Brussels, when 39 Juventus supporters were crushed under a collapsing wall trying to escape Liverpool supporters, the international version acquires an inevitable nationalistic feel to it. Like the fans of England and Russia, the hooligans rise up as representatives of their own countries. The idea is that the strength of the nation’s men, on and off the field, reflects the strength of the nation itself. The most recent example that comes to mind is the Serbia-Albania clash in 2015 where a drone with a political banner was flown into the stadium following which there was a mass brawl involving players, fans and team officials. What we see nowadays, more often than not, is a further offshoot involving issues of race as well. The nationalist sentiments abhor the collective “other”. A Serbia-Italy Euro 2012 qualifier was abandoned after seven minutes following violence.

A banner saying “Kosovo is Serbia” was unfurled in an attempt to project what constituted a “true” Serbian nation. Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008, has substantial Albanian and Serb populations which are ethnically divided.

The happenings in present-day Russia, a microcosm of which was exhibited the other day by its fans, boil down to a dangerous cocktail of all of the above. If in England, post the Heysel and Hillsborough disasters, stadium infrastructure saw remarkable improvement, with standing areas eliminated, perimeter fencing removed completely, closed-circuit TV cameras installed and rival fans segregated, Russia hasn’t seen much.

As the English Premier League era dawned, there was a sincere attempt to sanitise and make football in England more palatable on television too. Regular football watchers of this generation can see cameras making it a point to pan across families, children, non-whites among others. The Sikh fans behind the manager’s dugout at Manchester United’s Old Trafford stadium are almost always shown on television. But in Russia, clubs think twice about even signing non-white players, fearing monkey chants and violence. In 2014, Igor Gamula, the coach of the Russian Premier League team FC Rostov said that he would not sign black players, comments for which he was later banned. “Enough dark-skinned players,” he is reported to have replied when asked to confirm if a Cameroonian footballer was to join them. “We’ve got six of the things.”

Prejudice in Russia

James Appell, a journalist who has spent considerable time in Russia, wrote in Foreign Policy thus: “Russia is a country whose modern domestic soccer culture recalls the mostly white, mostly male, working-class nature of the sport in Western Europe two-plus decades ago, before safety regulations, stadium policies, and commercialization attracted a wealthier, more ethnically diverse, and more family-oriented clientele. And this culture includes — maybe even breeds — the men we’ve seen wreaking havoc across France over the past few days.”

In the aftermath of the violence in Marseille, two tweets and a statement emanating from Russia summed up everything that was wrong. Igor Lebedev, a member of the executive committee of the Russian Football Union, also deputy chairman of the national parliament, tweeted: “I don’t see anything wrong with the fans fighting. Quite the opposite. Well done, lads. Keep it up!” Later, Vladimir Markin, spokesman for Russia’s top investigative agency, tweeted that the French police could not handle “real men” because they were only used to policing gay pride marches.

The two gentlemen quoted above aren’t Russia. Neither are the 150-odd fans who were “trained to fight”. But against the backdrop of a culture of hooliganism which refuses to die, one cannot but shudder at the thought that the 2018 FIFA World Cup will be held in Russia.

sudarshan.narayanan@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Jan 19, 2020 9:20:46 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/A-field-day-in-the-name-of-free-kicks/article14426065.ece

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