Seeing Red, Seeing Stars, Seeing Bars

I was recently referred to by one of my friends as a “soccer mom” because I didn’t like his little facebook post of “Soccer players pretend they’re hurt, hockey players pretend they’re not.” I can take the kidding from him, let’s face it I drive Marcus to about 3 practices a week despite the fact that there’s several inches of snow and ice on the ground and it only recently managed to get above freezing for most of a day. But I’ll keep my kid in soccer thank you very much if it means not having to worry about concussions. What is permitted in hockey as part of the game is turning the sport into a literally bloody mess. That brings me to today’s tour of violence in the two sports and we’ll see where you want your kid afterward.



Seeing Red: First stop Manchester, for the game between Manchester United and Real Madrid. With United up 1-0, Nani (Man U) went up for a ball with his leg way out in front of him and basically ninja-kicked Arvalo Arbeloa (Real) in the chest. Nani was focused on the ball, but by leading with that leg he was judged by the ref have used “excessive force” to win the ball and so out came the red card. While many have argued the ref’s decision (including everyone in the city of Manchester), the response from Real was telling, they simply subbed Luca Modric in who almost immediately scored and then minutes later Cristiano Ronaldo put in the winner. No need to “even things up” no need to “send a message”, Nani was gone and so was Man U’s game plan. I’m going to back the ref on this one – it was excessive, whether he meant to or not is irrelevant, only that he did do it. I think what was so shocking to Sir Alex Ferguson wasn’t that it could happen, but that one of his players could receive a red at home. He was counting on the intimidation of the crowd at Old Trafford to nudge the ref to a yellow rather than the straight red.

Seeing Stars: Our travels take us now to Toronto, for the Leafs – Senators game the following day. 26 seconds into the game Frazer McLaren of the Leafs and Dave Dziurzinski of the Senators dropped gloves and had the good ol’ fashioned punch out. Suddenly, Dziurzinski was down and not just down, but out cold. McLaren needed stitches, but at least remained conscious. The consequences for the deliberate fight that had nothing to do with the play of the game: 5 minute majors for both, and then all was forgiven and McLaren went back on the ice. Oh, and there was another fight later in the first period, probably to “even things up”.

Dziurdzinski after the fight

Dziurzinski after the fight

Compare the two sports now – in one (I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt) a dangerous, but likely unintentional play ends up in a player being ejected for his conduct. In the other, two players deliberately stop the game so as to fight one another, one ends up with a concussion and the other receives only a five minute ban from the game, and this leads to a further fight soon after. The league may review McLaren’s actions, but this is largely accepted and tolerated in the sport.

I’m going to tie this back to my research now with the importance of the crowd to the teams involved. In the soccer example, Sir Alex was furious, not because there was a card, but because the ref wasn’t swayed by the emotion and intensity of the stadium (the affect, for you theory junkies) into giving a yellow, or a warning. In sending off Nani in such an unexpected way the ref did have a huge influence on the game, it rocked the management of Man U, the players and the fans. But I’m not going to say this was a negative effect, since it was the right call for a bad tackle.

On the other hand, in the hockey example the players were trying to create that emotion and intensity for their teams by starting the game with a fight, in this case it seems to have backfired as you can’t really get all riled up when someone is lying unconscious on the ice. And one has to wonder about the mentality of deliberately attempting to injure someone as a way of motivating your fans and teammates. Affect is a two-way street, rile up the fans and they’ll rile you up too, that’s the intent of this relationship – get the extra boost from the home crowd to put you over the top. But it isn’t just something that you turn on or off, it has a life of its own and can react in strange and unpredictable ways. Which brings me to…

Seeing Bars: The consequences of playing with emotions and intensity can sometimes spin off in ways that you never mean it to. Last week former youth hockey coach Martin Tremblay was sentenced to 15 days in jail for tripping a 13 year old player during the post game handshakes. I don’t think that there is any excuse for what he did, but I wonder if a sport that so strongly encourages its “toughness” aspects does not set itself up for exactly this sort of situation? It is Sarah Palin’s pitbulls with lipstick image come true.

Tremblay trips a 13 year old

Tremblay trips a 13 year old

My argument isn’t perfect, there’s a lot that goes on in a soccer crowd in some places that makes hockey fans positively tame, but the example that is set in the game itself is critical for setting the mood of the crowd around the game. How will fighting in hockey stop? When people stop watching because of the fighting. I gave up. We’ll watch the Olympics next year because there won’t be fights. The hockey will be good, but without idiocy, because as international hockey has shown, you can play without the fights.


I usually try to begin with a witty title to grab a few reader’s attention, but I don’t think that’s appropriate in light of the subject I’m writing about today.

Flares are often used by supporters to celebrate after goals and intimidate opponents, on some occasions they have been used as weapons by one group of fans against the other. Two stories of flares cropped up in the last day: one tragic, the other, well, just intimidating.


Corinthians fan arrested following Copa Libertadores match

The tragedy: Kevin Beltran Espada was a San Jose (Bolivia) fan attending the Copa Libertadores (South American Champions League) match against Corinthians (Brazil). He was a 14 year-old killed instantly when struck with a flare thrown from the Corinthians section. The flare was launched following a Corinthians goal and hit Beltran in the head. 12 Corinthians supporters were arrested for the incident and are being held in Bolivia pending the investigation. Many of the San Jose fans left in tears on hearing of the incident, and Coach Tite of Corinthians held a brief press conference where he expressed regret on behalf of all the Corinthians players and then left stating that, “I didn’t want to be here (at the conference), what happened is too heavy to be able to talk of football, I’m sorry.”

Conmebol (the South American Football Federation) has started its own investigation into the incident and has declared that Corinthians must play the next 60 days (of Copa Libertadores) matches behind closed doors.


Fenerbahce fans let the teams know they are still there

Despite the tragedy I don’t hold out much hope that flares will be dropped from fan repertoires. Half a world away, in the Europa League competition (UEFA’s second level tournament behind Champions League), Fenerbahce (Turkey) played behind closed doors in their round of 32 match against BATE Borisov (Belarus) due to the throwing of fireworks on the pitch during their previous European match against Borussia Monchengladbach.

Fenerbahce set up a big-screen TV outside the stadium for the fans that decided to come anyway and watch together from the parking lot. They will likely need to do so for their next match as well following the fans celebration of their lone goal in the match (allowing them to advance 1-0 on aggregate). In addition to the flares lit in the parking lot, a number of flares were launched by fans into the stadium and onto the pitch. It made for an eerie sight and underlined the banner held by the fans outside declaring “As if we were here”.

I appreciate the importance of sound and visuals made by the fans – heck that’s what I’m researching, but the degree to which flares take the intimidation is beyond most people’s sensibility for games. The risks are too great. Beyond just the danger inherent in using explosive devices in large crowds (which just seems like common sense), they have far too often become weapons in the hands of more aggressive supporters and hooligans. Inter Milan fans were banned for a series of matches several years ago for hitting the AC Milan keeper Dida with a flare in one of their derbies. And earlier this year Zenit St. Petersburg fans burned a section of their seating at a Anzhi Makhachkala  for a little fun. Considering the long history of stadium disasters and the long tradition of using pyrotechnics, its surprising this hasn’t happened more often – or maybe it does and I’m only just paying attention now.

Sacred Spaces

Phil Noble/ ReutersIn thinking about my project I just realized I have completely forgotten one of the spaces in the stadium: the field.

While this space should seem pretty obvious to consider when framing my project, I can see how it got overlooked. This is a space that is generally excluded from direct fan activities. It becomes all the more obvious how forbidden this space is when someone steps over the line and violates the sacredness of the field. The Manchester derby of yesterday provides some highlights of the behaviour that crosses the line when someone steps over the painted lines.

In the build-up to Sunday’s derby, this became a much hyped battle of two giants. Both Manchester teams were at the top of the EPL and both were looking to establish themselves as the premier Manchester side. Much was talked about how the city was divided between red and blue and the talk of money teams and history, all in hopes of a great match. In truth, the match seemed to live up to much of its hype, with a lead, a dramatic comeback and a last gasp winner. Had that been the end, that is all that would be talked about today, but it was the fans reaction following the winner (and some of this went on before that too, but without the same result) that changed the story of the day.

Following Robin Van Persie’s 90th minute winner, and during their goal celebration, some City fans let loose their displeasure at the goal; a smoke bomb went off on the field, and coins were thrown at the United players. One coin hit United defender Rio Ferdinand just above the eye (lucky for him it wasn’t a bit lower), opening a cut. As he retrieved the coin off the field another fan jumped the barriers and rushed onto the pitch, only to be stopped by the City keeper, Joe Hart. In total, 13 fans were arrested at the game by Greater Manchester Police, one for aggravated racial abuse, and two for violating bans on attending games. Police are continuing to investigate  and said they may make more arrests. What could have been one of the most memorable games in Manchester history is now marred by a few of the fans.

It was this, and in part a few of the other recent fan incidents that got me thinking about the sacredness of the field as a space. Unlike the rest of the stadium, where fans are allowed and encouraged to interact with the space, the field itself is removed from the fans’ territory, which makes the exceptions all the more noticeable. In the case yesterday, the pitch invasion of a City fan to try to confront Ferdinand was stopped by Ferdinand’s erstwhile opponent Hart (okay they used to be teammates on England), but here is a instance that when the fan transgressed the rules of fan conduct, the players instantly joined in a rejection of the fan’s behaviour. So here is a case where fans are excluded from the territory of a space, not just by the authorities written code, but by a unwritten code of fan behaviour.

This is in stark contrast to the invasion of the fans at the same stadium last May. At that time, City won the EPL on a goal scored on the final kick of the game. It was considered the most dramatic finish to the English top flight since Arsenal’s last day victory in 1989. At the final whistle fans streamed onto the field to celebrate with the team. It was considered an acceptable moment of transgression. But again the sacredness of the space was evident through some of the acts of the fans on the pitch, as some of them began to dig up pieces of turf to memorialize the moment of victory by their team. Order was eventually restored so that the trophy could be presented to the team and again the fans could celebrate their team’s victory.

As a result of the game yesterday, there have been calls for netting to be put in place at games, this is a rather ominous turn for English football, should the nets be put in place. It was the removal of fences that was the first of the changes following the Hillsborough disaster in 1989. While there have been a few high profile incidents of pitch invaders this season, they stand out all the more for their being uncharacteristic of fan behaviour. The most unfortunate example of the season was the assault of Sheffield Wednesday’s Keeper, Chris Kirkland by a Leeds United fan back in October. England fans should consider themselves lucky right now as the fields remain free of netting. Many of the stadia around the world have fencing in an attempt to keep the fans, and their missiles off the pitch.

I wonder if the use of fences and nets helps with the security of the stadium. Or does the use of fencing and netting encourage violent behaviour by the fans as they are now reacting to the impression that they need the physical separation? In any case, nets and fences are not missile proof. Nor are they a complete solution to persistent fan attacks.

Back to the question of sacred spaces, the stadium is often considered the modern-day cathedral, and much like the cathedrals of old, there are sacred spaces beyond the reach of the common fan. Even for the players, the play of the game is inscribed with the use of the field space and the boundaries of that space. It has much in common with theatre and the proscenium arch and stage that separate actors from audience. It is the exceptions to the rules that draw so much attention, as they clearly do not fit with the tolerated rules of society.


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.