Saturday, December 6, 2014

Old news from Spain

A hooligan's death sparks a week of debate and navel-gazing


A dark cloud passed over Spanish football last weekend as Lionel Messi was struck on the head by a bottle hurled from the stands in Valencia as he celebrated Barcelona’s winner, while over in Madrid a man was killed in a fight between hooligans attached to Atletico Madrid and Deportivo La Coruna.

Old news from Spain.


Messi left the Mestalla bruised but not wounded by the plastic missile and the club have vowed to find and ban the offender. Meanwhile the media has gone into soul-searching meltdown over the hooligan's death, helped by the fact hazy video footage captured the moment when Atletico thugs dropped their Deportivo counterpart into the Manzanares river following a battering to his skull.

Approximately 200 Atletico thugs battled 80 hooligans predominantly from La Coruna, with some help from groups attached to Alcorcon and Rayo Vallecano. The nominal clash was political - Frente Atletico being right-wing and the Riazor Blues from the left. Twelve further fans were injured and 24 arrested when the police showed up.

In English terms, the debate here seems to be positioned circa 1990, when a decade and a half of serious violence had led to several conclusions being drawn, most notably that it was near-impossible to detach hooliganism any further from football. 

It has been a blast from the past hearing calls for more CCTV within stadia, a debate which resounded around England around the mid-1980s and the nadir of Heysel.

Once British thugs had been expelled from stadia and their environs by intense policing, they took to taking down each other's numbers and arranging punch-ups between each other in isolated locations, as happened in Madrid.

The only remaining connections with the sport were that the gangs identified themselves with teams and their fights took place on match days.

As in England, the hooligan scene here is pathetic from a distance, an ugly spectacle of grown men stuck in the mentality of the school playground. The death of the Deportivo thug crossed the line of ultra culture of course. His ilk go to fight and not to kill, which explains why the top boys from the various groupings have each other’s phone numbers on speed dial.

These are not top-drawer criminals, who kill without qualms or the preamble of an arranged set-to. Like the protagonists of Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club, they are grown men lacking something in their lives and who make up for it with a bloody punch-up in private. This is not a footballing problem beyond the fact the fixtures calendar gives the police a clue to forthcoming scraps.

Sunday’s fatal clash in Madrid happened 300 metres away from Atletico’s Vicente Calderon ground but was planned using WhatsApp and took place at eight-thirty on a Sunday morning, so to centre the blame on the sport must be wide of the mark.

More than one press outlet referred to the hooligans as ‘aficionados’ (fans) of the clubs, which is an insult to genuine supporters, who have no wish to stain the name of their team in that way.

The dead man was not a season-ticket holder and possibly had no intention of going to the match, at noon. Some of the arrested thugs had match tickets in their pockets but many did not.

Add the fact that he was 43 years old and had convictions for violence, abuse and drug-dealing, was married with two children, yet travelled 600 km with dozens of like-minded men for pre-match entertainment on a Sunday morning involving baseball bats and iron bars, makes it hard to feel much sympathy.

While it is not always possible for the average fan to avoid the effects of football hooliganism, this victim clearly went looking for it.

Questions have been asked about the police’s failure to pre-empt the confrontation of course (they had deemed the match low-risk), while the football authorities have been encouragingly quick to promise a clampdown on the ultra culture.

Atletico have said the ‘Frente Atletico’ will no longer be allowed to enter the stadium, while the Riazor Blues are debating disbanding following the tragedy. The 88 identified participants in the riot have been slapped with €60,000 fines and five-year stadium bans.

The league and federation have spoken of deducting points and closing stadia of clubs who co-operate in future with ultra groupings, although it remains to be seen if the ultras will vanish.

One familiar absence from the debate has been the much-criticised head of the Spanish Federation & FIFA Ex.Co. member Angel Maria Villar Llona, whose silence has been depressing, if not unexpected.

Area around the Vicente Calderon Stadium.
Area around the Vicente Calderon Stadium
Spanish stadia appear similar to Italian ones and unlike English ones with their organised fan groupings, and some gangs, the Ultras Sur of Real Madrid and Barcelona’s Boixos Nois for example, seem every bit as fierce as the worst of Serie A, but the overall tone of Spanish fandom is less harsh than in Italy.

Football is fairly peaceful in Spain. An Athletic Bilbao fan died two years ago when his team played Schalke in the Champions League, but it has been 11 years since a Spaniard died at a game involving two domestic teams. There were three deaths in the 1980s and five in the '90s by comparison.

One can only hope this moment is a watershed and that the military-style groups clinging to clubs like parasites with their irrelevant political posturings, are flushed down the toilet in Spain forever.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile 

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