Robert Fisk: Football and violence go together

Red Star's pre-war match against the Croatian Partizans ended in a pitched battle
Click to follow
The Independent Online

When I was at school, I was once beaten by a prefect for reading a book on Czech history at a football match. Sutton Valence was - and remains - a minor public school whose straw boaters and long-distance runs along snow-covered roads and brutal punishments were supposed to mimic those wealthier but even more sadistic character-building sweatshops like Rugby and Eton. Sutton Valence has since moderated its ways.

But back in 1960, screaming "Come on, Sutton!" at a bunch of grunting, muddied idiots in blue, black and white shirts was deemed more important than the 1948 defenestration of Jan Masaryk in Prague. A prefect later lashed me with a cane on the orders of a spectacularly cruel housemaster whose unwillingness to prevent the most vicious beatings almost equalled his love of soccer and rugby football.

His memory returned to me as I read the first sports book of my life over Christmas, Franklin Foer's American best-seller How Soccer Explains the World. It confirmed for me what I have always suspected: that football and violence are intimately linked in cause and effect and that - far from the first being an outlet to avoid the second - they are mutually interchangeable.

Foer wades in at the deep end with a visit to Belgrade's top- scoring Red Star, a team nurtured by Serbia's equally top war criminal Arkan, who took his well-armed footballers down the Drina Valley in 1992 on an orgy of killing, plunder and mass rape. Arkan drove a pink Cadillac and sported a football wife - the gorgeous retro singer Ceca - whom he married in full Serb uniform. Red Star's pre-war match against the Croatian Partizans - beloved of its fascist president Franjo Tudjman who had adorned the team he once led with wartime Ustashe icons - ended in a pitched battle.

It was Margaret Thatcher who famously described football hooligans as "a disgrace to civilised society" - the very words we later used about the murderers of Serbia. In Glasgow, Protestant supporters of Rangers would sit in separate stands - "We're up to our knees in Fenian blood," they would roar in unison - from fans of the Catholic Celtic football club.

I well remember, covering the beat in Belfast in the early Seventies, how during Rangers or Celtic matches I would see more RUC cops patrolling the bridge over the Lagan than I would ever come across in a weekday sectarian riot. Come to think of it, the first time I ever saw a uniformed British policeman in France was from the window of the Eurostar; he was patrolling the platform at Lille station before an England-France match.

Vandalism, assault and murder have now become so much a part of European football that it has become a habit. "Football fan shot dead after racist mob attack," read a headline as I passed through Paris the other day. Typically, the story - of an off-duty French cop who killed a white supporter of the Paris Saint-Germain team as he screamed anti-Semitic insults while trying to murder a French Jewish fan of Israel's Tel-Aviv's Hapoel - was printed on page 27. It is quite normal, you see, for racist football fans to try to kill their opponents - and for the police to open fire.

The connections between football and violence - and, by extension, sadism - are truly creepy. An Irish friend who was a member of the European Union monitoring team in the Balkans recounted to me during the Bosnian war how he witnessed an exchange of bodies between Serb and Croatian armies near the city of Mostar.

"Both sides brought their corpses in sacks on lorries and they backed them up to a small field. But when the Serbs emptied the sacks, it was evident that the heads of their Croatian bodies had been chopped off. I didn't believe what I would see. Right there, in front of the Croats who had brought along their Serbian corpses, the Serbs began playing football with the heads of the dead Croatians. They were laughing because they knew how much this would enrage the Croats."

Odd, isn't it, how football gets muddied by armies. Whenever an Iraqi soldier or a Druze militiaman or an Egyptian Islamist wants to hold out the hand of friendship to me in the Middle East, he will always announce that he is a fan of Manchester United. In Lebanon, needless to say, teams represent the Shia, Sunni and Christian sects; murdered ex-prime minister Rafiq Hariri was the backer of one, just as Berlusconi became the owner of Milan and just as the Russian oligarchs branched out into football ownership - including British football ownership - as a symbol of their power.

Individual players could disgrace themselves - George Best could sink into alcoholism, Zidane could headbutt his opponent for insulting his sister - but the team went on for ever. The immense wealth accrued by football's stars - £10m in sponsorship reportedly picked up by the Brazilian Pelé - is regarded by the poorest of the poor as a tribute to the human worth of Edson Arantes do Nascimento (the future Pelé) who grew up in the dirt-poor town of Tres Coracoes west of Rio.

It's not all bad, I know. I remember flying into Tehran with the Iranian soccer team in 1997 after they had beaten Australia in a World Cup qualifier and the outburst of joy which greeted them - the thousands of Iranian women who poured illegally into the Azadi stadium afterwards, the political support the team gave to the reforming but tragically impotent president, Mohamed Khatami - constituted what Franklin Foer calls the Middle East "football revolution".

Maybe. But I remember a more disturbing moment in the Middle East when I was investigating one of the many - and all too true - incidents of brutality by British soldiers against Iraqi prisoners. In a Basra hospital, I listened to a badly wounded ex-prisoner of the British Army as he described how his tormentors had entered the room in which he and his friends were being held.

"Before they assaulted us, your soldiers gave us all names - the names of world-famous footballers," he said. "Then they started beating and kicking us until we screamed and begged for mercy. Why would they do that?"

I suspect I know.