Rein in the ultras now

APRIL has indeed been a cruel month for European football this season. If at all it is not referred to as the cruellest month — as poet T. S. Eliot once did in his poem The Waste Land — it is only because of the stiff competition it faced from November, when England's black players were subjected to racist chanting and abuse in Real Madrid's Bernabeu Stadium during a `friendly' against Spain. The recent abandonment of the European Champions League quarterfinal between AC Milan (Milan) and Inter Milan (Inter) in Milan's San Siro Stadium due to crowd violence and the crowd trouble in the match between Juventus and Liverpool at the Stadio Delle Alpi in Turin illustrate that the Continent is now the hotbed of evils — such as hooliganism and racism — which were largely associated with British fans during the last two decades.

Ironically, even before the second-leg matches started, Italian police and the Interior Ministry had identified the clashes as those with massive potential for trouble. The Milan derby has historically been an occasion where the second fiercest local rivalry in European club competitions — after the Old Firm clash between Rangers and Celtic in Scotland — has been showcased. And, the historical significance of the 1985 European Cup final clash between Liverpool and Juventus in the Heysel Stadium in Brussels — when a charge by Liverpool fans led to a wall collapse in the stadium and the death of 39 fans (mainly Italian) — is well documented the world over.

The madness could not be checked in San Siro. The match was stopped in the 73rd minute after Inter fans threw flares into the ground, one of which hit Milan's Brazilian goalkeeper Dida on the shoulder and burnt him. And, in Stadio Delle Alpi, even as Liverpool defended heroically its 2-1 lead from the first leg clash in Anfield — which, incidentally, was bereft of any violence or crowd trouble and where Liverpool fans issued a public apology to Juventus fans over what happened in Brussels 20 years ago — Juventus fans clashed with the police, attacked Liverpool fans and threw missiles throughout the match.

The message comes loud and clear to the Italian government and to club owners — it is worth noting here that there is a convenient confluence of interest in that the nation's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconni is the owner of AC Milan — that the menace of hooliganism cannot be treated unilaterally as a law and order problem. They should do well to look into the English example and begin a multi-faceted operation to tackle the problem, which should encompass aspects such as policing, legislation, structural interventions to change the demography of stadia and community work, including anti-racist and anti-fascist propaganda, among others.

The European governing body of football, UEFA, showed very little commitment towards preventing such instances in the future through its rather liberal punitive action against Inter — a fine of 132,000 pounds and playing six matches behind closed doors, two of which are suspended for three years. Fans matter very little for top European clubs in the age of football branding, and they depend on television revenue for existence. Hence, only banning Inter from European competitions would have demonstrated UEFA's commitment towards eradicating the menace.

It must be recalled that all English clubs were banned from European competitions for five years after the Heysel tragedy, and this certainly helped reduce the number of instances in which British fans went on the rampage. Italian hooligans — or ultras as they are called — are unlikely to use nationalism to aid their hooliganism like the English louts. On the contrary, during Italy's recent World Cup qualifier against Scotland at San Siro, supporters of Inter and Verona clashed! In the last few years, the ultras have already become to club football what the louts were to club and international competitions in the 1980s.

In 2001, Inter was fined 33,000 pounds and ordered to play two European games away from the San Siro after fans caused the abandonment of its UEFA Cup tie with Spanish side Alaves. A few months later, during its Serie `A' game against Atalanta, Inter fans harassed many visiting fans. Earlier this year, Swedish referee Anders Frisk was struck by a coin hurled by Roma fans in their team's Champions League match against Dynamo Kiev. The match was abandoned and Roma was asked to play behind closed doors.

The Italian government, thankfully, has realised that playing behind closed doors is no solution to the social menace of hooliganism. Italian sports minister Mario Pescante said thus: "Certain fans regard the closure of their ground as something that makes them feel more important. What we need are quicker and tougher sanctions to cut down the incidents." Calling off matches and penalising teams with violent fans with a 3-0 loss, which is what the Italian Football Federation is contemplating, is just not enough.