BRITAIN. Soccer violence takes its moral, economic toll
England is counting the cost, morally and economically, of having its hooligans blamed for the worst violence in soccer history. Although such riots have occurred in China, Latin America, and other parts of Europe, nowhere is the problem of soccer violence more acute or causing a government more concern than in Britain.
British soccer hooliganism, either at home or Europe, is so rampant that it is referred to on the Continent as the ``British disease.''
The recent riot at the European Cup Final in Brussels between Liverpool of England and Juventus of Italy was the worst in soccer's memory and resulted in 38 fatalities. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher immediately pledged 250,000 in relief to stricken Italian families.
The country that gave the world football now must also pay the price of being excluded from European soccer. Significantly, teams from Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland will not be banned.
An even higher price for soccer hooliganism is the damage to Britain's reputation on the Continent which could result in trade boycotts and retaliations to British businessmen and tourists. Top football clubs in England stand to lose thousands of pounds in lost gate receipts from Europe.
A one-year, self-imposed ban on English teams was as much an act of contrition as it was a tactical move to pre-empt an inevitable ban by the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA). But it didn't deter the UEFA from going ahead anyway and barring English teams from Europe for an indefinite period.
The fact that the United States generally stands apart from such tensions is viewed as significant because it could provide some of the 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 without causing panic, is cited here as setting a positive example.
Another observation is that unlike soccer -- often the only sport in Europe which serves as a safety valve for pent up emotions -- North America offers a much broader range of major sporting activities.
Meanwhile, a mood of national shame has descended on the country in the aftermath of the Brussels riot. The Brussels tragedy was caused when panic set in after Liverpool fans charged Juventus supporters and a wall collapsed crushing hundreds of people.
At the moment though the emphasis is on on moving as rapidly as possible to remove the opportunities that give rise to such animalistic behavior. Hence the British government's decision to rush through emergency legislation that would ban the sale of alcohol in and and near sports grounds, and on football trains and coaches.
Drunkenness is cited as a major factor in soccer hooliganism. Scotland has seen a sharp dip in soccer violence since a similar ban on alcohol was introduced a few years ago.
Eliminating or at least substantially reducing the drink problem, improved police surveillance and a tighter check on those entering football grounds, possibly by introducing members-only cards, are among a number of reforms put forward to stop soccer mayhem. But there is also an awareness that there is something much deeper in society that needs addressing.
There is a recognition, for instance, that a shift in youth values is necessary.
Sociologists and psychologists are having a field day arguing why a nation noted for its civility in the past should produce such behavior. Although the causes put forward are numerous, one consistent thread runs through the debate: the emergence for some time within Britain of a working class, youth sub-culture that has produced since the 1950s the teddy boys, rockers, mods, hard mods, and skinheads.
They're both employed and unemployed.
What they have in common is a sense of boredom and aimlessness that is relieved only by the excitement of a big soccer match and group identity that comes with associating with one or other of the rival teams.
Thus the Chelsea Shedboys, which support Chelsea -- one of the most notorious soccer supporter groups in Britain -- have had in their repertoire such songs as:
``We're forever throwing bottles
Pretty bottles in the air.
They fly so high
They nearly touch the sky.
And like West Ham they fade and die.
Arsenal keep running;
Wolves and Tottenham too.
We're the Chelsea Shedboys;
We'll keep running after you!''
Bottles here refers to beer bottles which are a menace because there is so much drunkenness at football games. When emptied they become dangerous missiles.
In his book ``We Hate Humans'', a report on youth and soccer battlegrounds in Britain, author David Robins shows how soccer has become a form of escapism for the working classes (rugby is identified more with the upper classes although the game is by no means restricted to them):
Robins cites one teenage boy who says: ``You could have a terrible week, a bust-up with your girl, row with the the old man, lose your job, everything could have gone wrong. . . . But when you go down there, on the terraces, you're shouting along with the rest. . . . Your worries fall away, you're on top of the world.''
Part of the difficulty for those trying to make soccer a respectable game that will win back family audiences at matches is that the soccer hooligans go to the game because they enjoy the ``aggro.'' Aggro is English slang for a punch-up and was initially adapted from the word aggravation which is how many rebelling teenagers view society and especially the law.
Tony Judge of the Police Federation says the worst possible thing you could say about any club supporters is that ``they're the best behaved.'' Each gang he says, wants to be the toughest.
Mr. Judge, who has written numerous articles on soccer violence, notes that ``the fiendish thing about it is there is a hardcore for which football violence is their way of getting kicks. They meet at rendezvous points ahead of the game. They have no connection with the clubs. Their supporters look upon [the recent] horror as the pinnacle of their success.''
This macho approach, he warns, means that such people will not be deterred by the tragedy of the Brussels riots, but will instead attempt to better it.
``The question 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,'' he says. ``We think we're getting closer than ever to that question.''