Fan power

From the ultras of Real Madrid behind one goal to the hooligans of Buenos Aires who can bend the biggest clubs to their voracious ticket demanding will. Football fanatics world over can often hold the game and the club they support to ransom.

Manchester United fans show their appreciation as the South Stand is unveiled as the newly renamed Sir Bobby Charlton to honour 60 years since his Manchester United debut. A section of the United fans were known for their notoriety in the 80s and 90s.   -  Getty Images

Liverpool fans protest against the rise in ticket prices.   -  REUTERS

Violence among soccer supporters off the field and even on it is an age old and endemic phenomenon. From the ultras of Real Madrid behind one goal to the hooligans of Buenos Aires, who can bend the biggest clubs to their voracious ticket demanding will. From the Head Hunters of Chelsea, who ravaged the country for so long, the scourge of black players, to the Neo-Fascist Roman thugs of Lazio, not to mention their equivalents, tifosi (fans) of bitter city rivals Roma. From the bigoted supporters of Russian clubs for whom black players are anathemas to the tribal cognacs, to the two great Glaswegian clubs, Protestant Rangers and largely Catholic Celtic. Drive them out of the stadiums, as has now become feasible and frequent given the powers of observing technology, and they will arrange to fight each other in remote streets.

It is however risky to generalise. Glasgow in all sad probability, will never change. It may be a great Scottish city but the roots of the antipathy are to be found in Ireland. Rangers’ ‘orange’ fans are rooted historically in the Protestant North, Celtic's in the Roman Catholic South. An old typically Glaswegian joke goes, “Why have Rangers got more supporters than Celtic? Because it’s easier to say ‘Blank the Pope than blank the National Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.’” Riots between the two conflicting groups go back to before the Great War of 1914 to 1918.

Liverpool’s fans disgraced themselves at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels, capital of Belgium, at the disastrous European Cup final of May, 1989. 39 blameless Italian spectators, following Juventus in the match, were crushed to death against a wall when attacked by drunken Liverpool fans on the adjacent terraces. I was there myself that dreadful evening. The deep irony of it was that the Juventus fans who were attacked and driven to injury and death were peaceful people, including families with children, who officially should not have been there at all. Many of them had got tickets through Italians working in Belgium. The hardcore of Juventus fans, who would surely have stood up to the hooligan surge, were far away at the other end. British police would have sorted out the trouble in little time but there were Belgian police, unused to such challenges. Absurdly, well after the carnage was over, a Belgian police officer marched his men on the pitch, lined them up and inspected them!

But why did it happen at all? To surmise why, one has to go back to the previous year when Liverpool won the European Cup Final on penalties after extra-time in the Olympic stadium, against the local team, Roma. After the game, the Italian Press angrily recorded that Roma thugs went to their cars where they had already secreted weapons of every sort, and attacked the perfectly peaceful Liverpool supporters. It was even recorded that Lazio fans tried to press weapons into the hands of the beleaguered Liverpool followers.

So Liverpool’s deluded hooligan fans in Brussels may in their ignorance have felt they were expecting some kind of revenge in Brussels, utterly unaware Turin in the North West, Juventus’ home city, and Roma far away South might just as well be two different countries.

Yet the day before the horrors of Heysel — a stadium in no fit condition to stage such a game – Everton the rival Liverpudlian club had won the European Cup Winners’ final against Rapid Vienna, in Rotterdam. Where the worst misbehaviour I saw was when one Everton fan marched out of a restaurant without paying his lunch bill. But Everton, like all the leading English clubs suffered — quite mistakenly in my view — when the Football Association suspended all English clubs from European competition for five years. So thanks to their Liverpool rivals, Everton, who had won the League Championship, were unable to compete in the Champions Cup the following season.

It was in the 1980s when Chelsea’s neo-Nazi fringe was at its most virulent. They virtually forced a promising young black right winger called Paul Canoville out of the club. They travelled around the country spreading mindless terror: until a brave young undercover policeman penetrated their group, risking his life, compiling enough evidence to take them to court and have them imprisoned. Only, in a bizarre anticlimax, for them all to be released, on the grounds that the evidence which he had surreptitiously scrawled down, while in their company, could not be accepted. The ultimate irony was that they even received financial compensation.

In South East London, the fans of Millwall, the club which drew much of its support among the tough dockers, whose habitat would eventually disappear in later years, were notorious for violence.

Going back to the 1920s and lasting till well after the Second World War, and almost to the present day. ‘No one likes us, we don’t care,’ is still the song sung by the Millwall fans. They are now down in the equivalent of the Third Division, but have had their time at the top and even reached the FA Cup final in 2004. In comparatively recent years there was an appalling riot outside the ground after a loss to Birmingham City in a vital League game. That was at the so-called New Den, the club having moved from the nearby original Den, a small compact stadium, notorious for rioting.

Manchester United fans are less belligerent nowadays, but in the latter 1970s and well into the 1990s their violent element, was among the worst in the country. Their London-based supporters The Cockney Reds, were dedicated to violence and the local United fans had an element which was hardly better. A young Oxford University student I knew well would travel by train with the Cockney Reds simply because it enabled him to save money but knowing their hatred for students, was terrified they would find out his disguise. At the end of every holiday, from Oxford, he would say goodbye to his bellicose companions, who would ask him whether he were going on holiday. He led them to believe that he was going abroad. As it transpired, he won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in Manchester itself so no longer had to travel.

Some years passed and he happened to be attending a United match when he met one of his old Cockney Red cronies, who told him how sorry he was to see him now, when he had just given away a pile of match programmes which he had been generously collecting for him!

In Russia, who have inexplicably been awarded the ensuing World Cup by a FIFA allegedly sworn to stamp out racism, racism is in fact endemic. The Dutch coach of the Zenit St. Petersburg club, Dick Advocaat, admitted that he did not dare to sign any player for fear of the reaction of the bigoted fans. Quite recently, rabid fans of Lokomotiv Moscow forced out the talented Nigerian international attacker Peter Odemwingie, sold to West Bromwich Albion, celebrating with a huge banner decorated with a design of a banana and a slogan of thanks to West Bromwich Albion. While FIFA sleeps, those black players who exist in Russian football continue to face abuse both on and off the field.

Liverpool’s fans recently won a major battle with the club’s American owners, who had vertiginously raised ticket prices, walking out of a match in their thousands. The American’s immediately capitulated.