The Ugly Game

Europe’s other cup – the Europa League, continued its group stages today, but not without some off-field problems.

Tottenham Hotspur was in Rome to play Lazio, which should have been a chance for two teams to celebrate a fan favorite that happened to play for both, Paul Gascoigne. Instead, all the news focused on the bar “The Drunken Ship” where visiting Tottenham fans were attacked by a masked mob of about 40 men armed with paving stones, metal bars, and anything else they could get their hands on. The mob attacked from multiple directions, trapped the Spurs fans, some American tourists, and others in the bar and proceeded to beat and attack the fans until they were through.

The immediate reports after the attack focused on the idea that it was a group of Lazio supporters that attacked the Spurs fans. On the surface this is of course the most simple explanation: the two teams were scheduled to play, Lazio has known fascist elements in its ultra groups and Tottenham fans relish their Jewish connections as the “Yid Army” and roots in a Jewish section of London.

While the last part is likely part of the reason for the attack, there is a problem with conflating all violence against football fans as football fan violence. It later came out that one of the suspects arrested in the attack was not a Lazio supporter, but an AS Roma supporter instead, which makes the Lazio vs Spurs story a less satisfying explanation.

In a meeting with my supervisor the other day we discussed the idea of whether a fan could be a member of multiple groups. My response was that to support two local rivals risks being seen as a traitor to either of the groups. Fan loyalties, if they are divided, reach outside the main rivalries and perhaps divisions so as to preserve the ‘other’ that your core loyalty defines itself against. My loyalties are divided between Arsenal (top choice) and Barcelona: Arsenal has the strongest pull on me, but Barcelona is a comforting fallback when Arsenal continually sells off its best players and then fails to win a trophy (again). As I’ve stated earlier, my biggest problem in Canada is TFC and Vancouver, as I am caught in an awkward position of liking both teams for my attachments to those cities.

Going back to Rome now, the arrest of an AS Roma fan undermines the idea of it being a straight case of fans vs fans. Just a couple of weeks ago the Roma-Lazio derby was its typically violent affair both in the crowd and on the field. These two groups of fans are not going to sit down and sing kumbaya together just so they can beat up some Brits. Instead, my theory is that there is a smaller group that happens to be united, but keeps connections in both ultra groups that is instead responsible. Rather than looking at this as football violence, this should instead be considered a hate attack. Fascist groups often recruit from ultra groups, but after reading Gabriel Kuhn’s Soccer vs the State, I will make a distinction between ultras and hooligans. Ultras fight for their team, whereas hooligans just fight. It is a difference of having a unified purpose (ultras) and nihilism and anarchy (hooligans). Now this attack becomes one directed by a fascist group containing football fans, rather than by football fans who are fascist. Spurs fans become a visible and easy target as both foreigners and as “Jewish”.

It is a subtle difference in the story, but one that is important in understanding the violence as not just a product of the sport of soccer – which is too often the conclusion in North America. Instead, the violence has deeper societal causes that are expressed in the highly combustible cultural experience of sport.

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