Don’t blame the beautiful game for riot shame
If badminton was the World Game there would probably be just as many riots as there are now with soccer. The graceful swoop of the goose-feathered shuttlecock would not calm the madding crowds.
If only badminton had the power to invoke the passion, it could rival the semi-religious fervour that soccer induces. If only. Then we could blame badminton for all violence in sport and stop making soccer out to be evil.
Soccer is, globally, inextricably linked to violence in people’s minds. But it’s not soccer’s fault. Soccer just happens to be the medium for the message. It is the excuse, the scapegoat.
Soccer teams more often than not reflect ethnic, political, social and religious divisions. Throw thousands of fans aligned with either side into an enclosed space, and watch them work themselves up to fever pitch.
Last week, in a throwaway line, I wrote of the protesters at the Australia Day riot that they were “better behaved than spectators at plenty of soccer matches I’ve been to”.
The point was not that there’s a lot of violence at soccer (in Australia, anyway); it was that the tent embassy protest ‘violence’ was piddling. The response to that one line, though, forced a mental double take.
Readers called me a stupid f***king bitch, a ‘stereotyping whore’, a racist bitch. They said I’d fabricated the soccer violence, that I had, with that one rather lacklustre sentence, destroyed the game’s reputation.
It’s enough to make you think maybe there is an anger management issue in the soccer community.
And then, of course, shortly afterwards there was the horrendous tragedy in Port Said, Egypt. A soccer game erupted and left at least 74 people dead, and more than a thousand injured. The protests are still going.
But soccer was just the location of the problems, not the cause. The Australian outlined the allegiances of those involved:
Many of the dead in Port Said were thought to have been Ultras, supporters of Cairo’s main football club Al-Ahly, set upon by partisans of the local Al-Masry side. The Ultras played a prominent role in last year’s uprising, and commentators have fed speculation pro-Mubarak forces were behind the massacre, or at least complicit in it.
The history of soccer is littered with tragedy; in 1964 318 people were killed in riots over a refereeing decision in a game between Peru and Argentina. Up to 39 people were killed in Brussels when riots broke out before the European Cup final between Juventus and Liverpool.
Margaret Thatcher used that incident to escalate her war on the ‘English Disease’ of football hooliganism, supporting a ban on English clubs from playing in Europe.
“We have to get the game cleaned up from this hooliganism at home and then perhaps we shall be able to go overseas again,” she said.
Throughout Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe, soccer spectators often turn violent. That is undeniable, and that is why soccer has earned this reputation as a bloodsport (a reputation that has unfairly spread to Australian soccer).
It’s not just because stupid people get frustrated with the offside rule, or impatient people get angry with the low scores, or some sort of psychological defect in the sport’s players, officials or spectators.
In England the hooliganism is linked to social class; to poverty and unemployment. And alcohol.
In Scotland there are religious divisions (the Catholic Celtic FC versus the Protestant Rangers). In the Middle East there’s fragmentation along religious and political lines. Elsewhere there are right-wing clubs and left-wing clubs and white pride clubs and historical ethnic tensions. As well as testosterone bubbling away in crowded spaces.
Soccer is a victim of its own success. It is objectively the most popular game in the world – and subjectively, the best game in the world. It is from this exalted position that it has become so important to individual and cultural identity, and therefore a locus for conflict.
Here in diverse Australia, people invest themselves as much in rugby, football, cricket and tennis - so violence is not restricted to soccer, but spread out across all our sports. Except badminton. So far.
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