“Ultras” in European sport. #Italians at it again against #UK fans. Does this happen in North America?

23 Nov

Earlier this week, the British press reported on a horrific incident prior to a European football (soccer) match in Rome between Tottenham (UK) and Lazio (Italy). The link to the Guardian article is here if you want to read the whole thing.

The story in a nutshell is that 50 or so Italian “Ultras” dressed in modern suits of armor and equipped with knives bats, and other bludgeons, went into a bar where Tottenham fans were known to be having some drinks and unleashed an attack on the patrons. Several were stabbed and beaten and had to be admitted to the hospital. Others luckily got away unscathed. The bar was also badly damaged in the incident.

An Italian newspaper covering the incident stated the scene looked like “urban warfare” and the worse was feared (read: murder).

I found out about this from Twitter. A Canadian hockey player tweeted about the incident and exclaimed this was the difference between European and North American sports. In North America, you can wear your teams opposing jersey and be fairly safe, with a verbal assault or beer thrown on you here or there. At first, I completely agreed….but then I thought that our games are not completely without violence.

To be fair, Canada had a crazy riot in Vancouver in 2011. In a preseason baseball, there was huge fight out in California. The Philadelphia Eagles have notoriously rowdy fans and even had a courtroom to process illegal offenders in Veterans Stadium. I have had friends who were not allowed into several bars during the Stanley Cup playoffs in Pittsburgh while wearing a Red Wings jersey. To my Canadian friend’s credit though, we do not get a gang of 50 people in protective gear and premeditate attacks on opposing team members. This gets me back to the Ultras….

When I first attended my first soccer match in Budapest we encountered a wall scrawled with “solo ultras” in spray paint. I initially thought Ultras might have been the team mascot. Ultras are actually the crazy, fanatic, super fans.

Image

A weathered Ujpest Ultras sticker on a light pole outside of Ferenc Szusza Stadium north of Budapest.

Ultras have even been studied academically. In the linked study, Ultras are described as a European phenomenon that do “not deliberately set out to commit violence”. They consider themselves the ultimate fan and demand attention from the club. They also spend a lot of money each game on elaborate pyrotechnic demonstrations (often in excess of 4,500 Euros per game). Seeing the pregame demonstrations in person, I must admit they are pretty amazing, but anything similar is strictly prohibited across the Atlantic.

Ok-so the problem is not all of the Ultras. But, in specific countries, Ultras are an issue. In Hungary, some Ujpest and Ferencvaros fans have been known to meet in a location away from the security of the game to brawl. If people want to get together and voluntarily beat each other, it is a little weird I suppose, but they are all adults. The problem is with innocent by-standards being harmed.

If these incidents are rare, then the police rightfully should look at them as a few bad apples and prosecute them as necessary. A major problem arises when there are multiple incidents and the government allows matches to continue. It appears some Middleborough fans were attacked in Rome in the same manner prior to a match against AS Roma in 2006.

What’s worse? Some Eastern European teams disguise their sports fandome for nutcase right-wing political ideology. In Czech Republic and Serbia, there have been recent incidents monkey chants at black players on opposing teams. I wrote about these issues, as well as the anti-Semetic incidents in Hungary in a soccer match against the Israeli National Team. Government’s have been complicit in some instances by not investigating when they should and implicit when their governments share a similar ideology (Hungary’s third largest party, Jobbik, are deeply anti-Semitic and anti-Roma).

So what should be done? UEFA has begun punishing national teams for their behavior (Croatia fined $100,000 for racist chants against Italy this summer). I think this is the right direction.

On that note, I think all games in Rome should be suspended after at least two wild incidents over the past seven years. You could argue that punishing all football fans because of 50 thugs is unneccessary. This is no longer about sports, but for keeping the safety of innocent tourists. Rome has a huge tourism industry and if they cannot protect their tourists, they should dissuade them from coming until they can address the problem. Punishment must include self-policing from the teams and from the real “Ultras”. I believe it will take the courage to suspend all games by the government, preventing these cowardly acts until proper action can be made.

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