…like pretentious broadsheet editorials and sweeping generalizations. Armed with a copy of Franklin Foer’s “How Soccer Explain The World”, the Independent’s Robert Fisk declares football and violence to be “mutually interchangable.”
Foer wades in at the deep end with a visit to Belgrade’s top- scoring Red Star, a team nurtured by Serbia’s equally top war criminal Arkan, who took his well-armed footballers down the Drina Valley in 1992 on an orgy of killing, plunder and mass rape. Arkan (above, right) drove a pink Cadillac and sported a football wife – the gorgeous retro singer Ceca (above, left) – whom he married in full Serb uniform. Red Star’s pre-war match against the Croatian Partizans – beloved of its fascist president Franjo Tudjman who had adorned the team he once led with wartime Ustashe icons – ended in a pitched battle.
It was Margaret Thatcher who famously described football hooligans as “a disgrace to civilised society” – the very words we later used about the murderers of Serbia. In Glasgow, Protestant supporters of Rangers would sit in separate stands – “We’re up to our knees in Fenian blood,” they would roar in unison – from fans of the Catholic Celtic football club.
Vandalism, assault and murder have now become so much a part of European football that it has become a habit. “Football fan shot dead after racist mob attack,” read a headline as I passed through Paris the other day. Typically, the story – of an off-duty French cop who killed a white supporter of the Paris Saint-Germain team as he screamed anti-Semitic insults while trying to murder a French Jewish fan of Israel’s Tel-Aviv’s Hapoel – was printed on page 27. It is quite normal, you see, for racist football fans to try to kill their opponents – and for the police to open fire.
I remember a more disturbing moment in the Middle East when I was investigating one of the many – and all too true – incidents of brutality by British soldiers against Iraqi prisoners. In a Basra hospital, I listened to a badly wounded ex-prisoner of the British Army as he described how his tormentors had entered the room in which he and his friends were being held.
“Before they assaulted us, your soldiers gave us all names – the names of world-famous footballers,” he said. “Then they started beating and kicking us until we screamed and begged for mercy. Why would they do that?”