Celery menace crushed but violence stalks elsewhere

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An Athenian suburb, a women’s volleyball game: you reckon you would be pretty safe. But last month a man was killed in a fight between hundreds of fans of Olympiakos and Panathinaikos. Most people still associate violent fans with football, but other sports are becoming increasingly dangerous.

Strangely, football hooligans still get almost all the attention. Hysteria surrounds the game this season, after fans killed a policeman in Sicily and a policeman killed a fan in Paris. Supporters of Roma and Manchester United fought last Wednesday. In Seville on Thursday, Spurs fans threw seats and punches at riot police. However, on football’s higher slopes at least, violence is diminishing.

When hooligans spoiled the World Cup of 1998, the violence was seen on television worldwide. The embarrassed authorities decided that enough was enough. Their measures verged on the hysterical. It’s now probably easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a hooligan to get into an international football tournament. The millions of spectators cause hardly any violence. Admittedly, there are occasional arrests, but there would be arrests at bingo nights if you packed them with policemen.

English football cracked down hardest. A case in point is the “celery song”, which Chelsea supporters traditionally sing while throwing stalks of said vegetable:

Celery, Celery

If she don’t come,

I’ll tickle her bum

with a lump of celery.

“Gosh,” commented my wife. “It shows a profound misunderstanding of the female anatomy.” Now, however, Chelsea operates a “snitch-line” that people can phone up to report the celery-throwers.

Crazed as these measures seem, they work. Crowds in English football are near a 35-year peak, yet arrests are at their lowest since records began. The police no longer even bother attending 43 per cent of domestic matches.

After the Sicilian policeman’s death in February, the Italians copied the English crackdown. They are doing this not because football generates so much violence: this year Italy will probably experience about 700 murders, only one of which has happened at a game. But the authorities worry disproportionately about violence at football because it gets televised everywhere. France, too, is cracking down on its handful of hooligans.

In short, high-level football is following the “celery” strategy and becoming safer. The most dangerous leagues are now poorer, less publicised ones, in Poland, Serbia or Argentina. In Buenos Aires, going to watch football is considered an insupportable risk, like going to the Apocalypse.

Given the structure of soccer, the astonishing fact is how little violence there is. After all, the game draws vast crowds of young men, the demographic category that commits most crime; and the stadium creates the most adversarial situation possible by opposing two groups of these men.

Other sports, with smaller crowds, have experienced hooliganism since the chariot races of the Roman empire. In the “Nika riots” in Constantinople in 532, spectators burst out of a stadium and assaulted the emperor Justinian’s palace. Eventually, his troops slaughtered 30,000 rioters in the Hippodrome.

Americans often regard soccer as uniquely dangerous. Yet violent fans are always being arrested in American sport. Usually the miscreants are isolated drunks, but occasionally the violence is a mass affair. When a team becomes national champions, its fans sometimes riot in the streets. Last month, shots were fired during brawls after a high-school basketball game in New York. And as spring starts, connoisseurs of baseball hooliganism will recall events such as the “anti-disco” promotion at a Chicago White Sox game in 1979. Fans were encouraged to bring disco records, which were blown up in center field. Next thing anyone knew, 7,000 spectators were brawling and lighting bonfires with the debris.

Even in Japan a Hanshin Tigers baseball game in 2003 featured fisticuffs and tear gas. Significantly, Japan had then just hosted football’s World Cup, complete with much talk of hooligans, who in fact didn’t show up. The football lore probably inspired the Tigers fans. Thus hooliganism, carried by globalisation, spreads from football to other sports. Last week’s Greek death was a case of football fans diversifying: Olympiakos and Panathinaikos are better known for their men’s football than their women’s volleyball teams.

There was similar infection in Melbourne in January, when Serbian and Croatian fans fought at the Australian tennis open – something they had done in Australian soccer before the sport was cleaned up. In the same city, cricket got so violent that police have banned the Mexican wave because it’s considered incendiary.

The wave, of course, comes from football. India’s cricket hooligans may have studied soccer too. Known for throwing stones, this year they have already attacked the home of India’s wicketkeeper, and punched the national coach, Greg Chappell, who has just resigned.

Other sports would like to crack down like soccer. But they won’t do it as thoroughly. Partly this is because their violence gets less international publicity, and thus embarrasses politicians less. Partly it’s because the American economic model of sport relies on selling beer to fans. Partly it’s because fans of other sports are only now discovering hooliganism, decades after football fans did.

Soon football will be rid of the celery menace. But if you plan to watch much croquet this summer, be afraid.

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