March 29, 2011
A few months before the 1996 European Championship in England, the German weekly news magazine Focus – whose easily parodied slogan at the time was "Facts, Facts, Facts" – ran a piece about how violence among fans was set to ruin the tournament. "The whole of London will be reduced to rubble and ashes," one German hooligan was quoted as saying. But he had reckoned without the healing powers of Skinner, Baddiel and the Lightning Seeds.
Every major tournament comes equipped with bi-annual speculation about its ability to play host, with questions about a country’s readiness to counter terrorism, crime or hooliganism raised in parallel with concerns about transport, stadium and hotel infrastructure. With regard to Brazil and Russia hosting the next two World Cups, expect those discussions to continue right up until opening day. In the short term, Poland and Ukraine continue to worry UEFA just 14 months ahead of Euro 2012.
â€¨â€¨Poland travel to Greece tonight for a friendly, but the country’s pessimism at their team’s prospects after losing 2-0 in Lithuania on Friday night will have been overshadowed by their rowdy fans. The Lithuanian news agency Delfi reported that 200 Polish followers rioted in the streets around the S. Darius and S. Girenas Stadium in Kaunas, pelting police with fireworks, stones and bottles, and hospitalising one policeman. Numerous arrests were made after the police countered with dogs and tear gas. It follows violence surrounding Poland’s 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign in Belfast (11 policemen injured, nine arrests), and Slovakia (seven policemen and several fans injured, 16 arrests).â€¨â€¨
Following the trouble in Kaunas, a poster at the Polish Soccer blog commented: "These fools are my biggest worry for Euro 2012 since Poland and Ukraine will be receiving national spotlight, and… [they] will be at the centre of attention instead of our football team and glorious country. I hope the Polish police have something planned out for them."â€¨â€¨
According to the German daily Die Welt, there is indeed "something planned" – electronic ankle tags, to replace the current policy of known hooligans reporting in at a police station on match days. "With these tags, we can check if the fans concerned really are at home," said justice minister Krzysztof Kwiatkowski. However, the measure has yet to be approved by parliament for the 1,850 fans currently banned from Polish stadiums.â€¨â€¨
There is a difference, of course, between reportedly drunken fans going wild on an away trip, and a concerted effort to disturb a closely policed tournament in your own country when an outside body – in this case UEFA – takes over whole areas of a city to provide a sanitised match-day experience for those who can afford to go. UEFA president Michel Platini confessed last week that he’ll be losing sleep about the 2012 tournament "until the final whistle is blown", and said he was sorry that Ukraine, whose stadium- and hotel-building programme will go right down to the wire, was ever chosen as co-host. But it’s likely that, with enough cajoling and threats from the governing body, Euro 2012 will follow the pattern of the past decade and ultimately pass without major incident.â€¨â€¨
The end result for visiting fans, however, is that major tournaments are becoming increasingly similar to resort holidays in the developing world, where tourists are isolated in walled compounds to sunbathe on the beach in peace from any troubles that might lurk beyond. UEFA will demand from both host countries next year that they do just enough to present a veneer of normality. Stadiums must be shiny and pristine, guests made secure and comfortable, and troublesome locals must be confined to their homes.â€¨â€¨
Then once that final whistle is blown to Platini’s relief, football ships out, and it cares very little about what happens next. To paraphrase Sepp Herberger, after the tournament is before the tournament. Once the final’s done, the next question becomes: How safe will fans be in Brazil during the 2014 World Cup?