Soccer riot in Belgium prompts call for safer stadiums, crowd control
Violence on the part of soccer fans in China and Latin America as well as in Europe has come to be recognized as a growing international problem. But nowhere is it causing a government more concern than in Britain. British soccer hooliganism -- as seen in the rampage during the European Cup Championship in Brussels Wednesday in which 38 fans were killed -- is so rife that it is referred to on the Continent as the ``British disease.''
In large part the United States has not experienced such spectator violence, and it may provide some answers to this disturbing social phenomenon.
The high standard of construction in American-built stadiums and the relative ease with which crowds can enter and leave major sporting events are cited here as setting a positive example.
The Brussels rampage between Liverpool and supporters of the Juventus team of Italy was the worst in the history of the game. It has brought demands both in Europe and in Britain itself for a ban on all British soccer clubs in Europe.
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher immediately pledged 250,000 ($317,500) in relief to the families of the victims, most of whom were Italian.
But the anticipated ban, while removing the most flagrant cause of soccer mayhem, would not address the basic causes of the problem, or avoid the kind of violence that accompanies soccer matches in other parts of the world.
Mainland Chinese supporters, for instance, rioted recently when China was defeated in a game against Hong Kong. Soccer violence is considered commonplace in Latin America. There have been incidents in Italy, West Germany, and France as well.
What is worrying governments, police forces, and soccer authorities is that with the exception perhaps of the Hong Kong-China game, outbreaks of violence have often had nothing to do with spontaneous outbursts of nationalist fervor. Rather they have been calculated acts of destruction.
Spectators frequently arrive carrying flares, fireworks, smoke bombs, and other, more lethal, weapons.
Says Tony Judge of the British Police Federation, who has written numerous articles on soccer violence: ``The fiendish thing about it is there is a hard core for which football violence is their way of getting kicks. They meet . . . ahead of the game. They have no connection with the clubs. Their supporters look upon last night's horror [the Brussels riot] as the pinnacle of their success.''
Such a macho approach, Mr. Judge warns, suggests that such people will not be deterred by the tragedy of the Brussels riots, but will instead attempt to surpass it.
``The question,'' he says, ``has to be raised whether a football game has become such a threat to public order that it should not be held in public at all. We think we're getting closer than ever to that question.''
But the possibility that celebrated cup finals could be off-limits to spectators is viewed as a drastic cure.
Some analysts who have seen soccer violence grow steadily worse say the lack of violence in certain areas possibly provides as good a clue as any to how best to approach the problem.
The two best examples are Scotland and the United States. Soccer violence was drastically reduced in Scotland when a ban was imposed on the sale of liquor at soccer matches.
The situation in Brussels was aggravated by the fact that many Liverpool fans had drunk vast quantities of alcohol before they even set foot in the stadium.
They drank on the bus in England en route to the coast; they drank on the ferry over to Belgium; and once in Brussels, they consumed huge quantities of cheap Belgian beer.
There is some question as to why nothing was done to bring the drinking problem under control before the fans got to Brussels.
What turned the riot into a catastrophe was the collapse of a flimsy stadium barrier under the weight of hundreds of fleeing spectators.
Lack of adequate safety precautions had contributed to the high death toll in the recent fire that torched the grandstand in Bradford. That incident was unrelated to hooliganism. But both disasters point up the need for much greater safety measures at stadiums.
Many commentators say the level of violence in soccer riots would be greatly reduced if grounds were kept in better condition.
Stadiums in the United States, where crowd safety is a prerequisite, are cited as providing many of the solutions needed in Britain and Europe.
According to those familiar with crowd control, sturdy American stadiums provide sufficient spectator mobility without the kind of freedom of movement European stadium design allows. This seems to invite gangs to run the full length of the stadium, making contact with spectators from rival teams.
American stadiums restrict movement with barriers that cannot be knocked down by rampaging mobs.
One reason England's Wembley stadium has been free of any major violence is that barriers and walls divide the spectators into small sections.
Many soccer clubs, however, don't have the financial resources for first-class stadiums.
Whatever the possible solutions might be, the Brussels riot has profound political implications for Britain.
Mrs. Thatcher prides herself on having a ``law and order government.'' The government, according to a British official, is concerned about the impact soccer violence will have on Britain's links with the European Community, especially since the blame for the Brussels riot has been put squarely at the door of British soccer fans.
The riot is expected to strengthen Mrs. Thatcher's hand in her campaign for stiffer sentences for soccer hooligans. The problem has been to gather sufficient evidence to convict the troublemakers.