Soccer's Growing Hooligan Problem

By Noah Davis 

Last week, Serbian hooligans forced the cancellation of a soccer match between their countrymates and Italy. Seventeen people were detained by authorities. Serbian president Boris Tadic blamed organized crime and anti-gay groups for giving orders.

“Not for a moment should we forget that organized crime uses extremist fan groups to destabilize the state, which sends mafia bosses into prison. In this fight, Serbia will prevail,” he said.

Slate’s Brian Phillips takes stock of the whole situation, noting that Italian officials should have seen this coming.

“Earlier in the day, ultra-nationalist Serbs had fought with Italian police in the streets and attacked their own team bus, yet the same group was able to enter the stadium with unconfiscated knives, clubs, and explosives,” he writes.

Sounds like a recipe for disaster.

Phillips’ take revolves around the resurgence of the historical ties between right-wing radicals and soccer hooliganism. (He smartly points to Bill Buford’s seminal and awesome book, Among The Thugs, as the best guide for the heyday 30 years ago.) The nationalists were acting on instructions from higher up, “it’s not clear that the rioters themselves all had the same objective or that they even knew what their objective was.”

Hence, the disorganized, chaotic riots that managed to do nothing other than piss the rest of the world off and stop a game.

Sweden, on the other hand, has a very different hooligan problem.

It turns out that Swedish supporters hate their own favorite teams.

Tore Brännberg, a social psychology researcher at Gothenburg University, explains:

“The main thing today is not the fighting between fans but fans turning against their own clubs. The fans [we are seeing today] think differently and see this as their religion, where AIK, IFK Gothenburg, Malmo or whatever team it is, is the most important thing in their life. And when things go badly they feel that they have to act.”

Essentially, the quality of Swedish soccer has fallen to the point where fans are so angry they resort to attacking players on their team. Recent surveys put the number of players in the top division who have been threatened or bullied by fans at between 20 and 31 percent.

Congratulations, Sweden, you’re now England 30 years ago.