Simon Evans explains why the bad old days of English football have come to be re-enacted every weekend in stadiums throughout the former Soviet Bloc
Attending a game in Eastern Europe for an English fan is a strangely familiar experience: you could be at an English Third Division match circa 1981 – the crumbling, half-empty terraces, stinking toilets, the alcohol, the drunks and the ‘boys’ staring each other out through fences topped with barbed wire.
Travelling to a big derby on public transport, you find yourself watching your back, there are skirmishes in the underground and inside the ground, coins and bottles fly. The police who once had licence to crush anything remotely resembling an unruly crowd, are uncertain of their role today and lack the resources, manpower or technical capability to deal with a problem which is sprouting up all over the former Soviet bloc.
In the Czech Republic, the ‘Rowdies’, particularly those in Brno, have grown in strength in recent years. In one incident Sparta Prague fans assaulted and hospitalized an opposition goalkeeper. Clashes between skinhead groups and police are regular occurrences at Polish games. Ferencvaros of Budapest have been fined by UEFA several times because of crowd disturbances and this season were given a final warning from UEFA because of incidents surrounding their UEFA Cup tie with Olympiakos. Croatia Zagreb received the ultimate punishment by UEFA, banned from European competition because of the behaviour of their hooligans – the ‘Bad Blue Boys’.
The youths chasing down metro stations in Budapest, Bucharest, Prague and Warsaw take their influences from different parts of the continent. One prominent inspiration are the ultras – the Italian, Spanish and Portuguese groups, with their group names proclaimed proudly from huge banners, their scarves wrapped over their faces like the keffiyah of the Palestinian intifada. In recent years the ultra movement has taken off in Hungary and Romania, although it had been part of the Yugoslav scene for over a decade. It is not always violent, as the Hungarian documentary film, Ultra Renaissance, showed with its tale of Kispest-Honved’s Ultra Red Boys with their satchels full of sandwiches taking a bus ride to Debrecen and doing little more than yelling abuse out of the window at peasants.
But that film also has a scene which reveals the stranger side of East European hooliganism. One Debrecen fan being interviewed in the pub before the game is explaining the modern fans mentality – “Read Fever Pitch and you’ll understand,” he tells the reporter.
Forget the ultras with their smoke bombs and banners – the serious hooligans look to England for inspiration. Never mind that Nick Hornby doesn’t write a word in praise of hooliganism, that he’s probably never even shouted “You’re going home in an Arsenal ambulance.” He’s an English football fan so he must be a hooligan. The prejudice that plagues the few decent fans who travel abroad with England, the belief that we are all psychopaths ready to stick the boot in, is actually seen as a positive by young East European fans.
The skinhead in the pub, where Slovan Bratislava hardcore fans meet for a few Budweisers before the game, found out I was English. “I’m a Chelsea fan,” he tells me proudly, “but I like Millwall too.” The large bonehead to his left is wearing an England shirt, behind him on the wall is a Combat 18 poster. He starts telling me tales of battles past at Stamford Bridge. He speaks limited English but while he was over for Euro ’96 supporting, interestingly for a Slovak skinhead, the Czech Republic, he picked up some interesting technical vocabulary. He talks of “firms”, “running”, “kick-offs”.
Kids like this are not hard to find around the grounds of Eastern Europe. Across the region the clothing, the language and the lifestyle of the cartoon early Eighties English thug is à la mode. If it weren’t for the stiff-arm salutes and booing of black players inside the stadium later it would be almost laughable.
I ask the Slovan skin how Ruud Gullit fits in with his idea of Chelsea or if he knew that Millwall won some award for football in the community and that no-one sings “We are evil” or dresses up in surgeons’ outfits anymore. I tell him that no one is really into all that “running” and “firms”. He looked sad, went quiet for a moment, before he came back to life: “Yeah, but what about England at Landsdowne Road?”
In Budapest, there is a 16-year-old who actually bought a video of that foreshortened game. His bedroom in his parent’s shoebox flat is crammed with ultra and hooligan memorabilia. With the dedication of a trainspotter or stamp collector he has on file hundreds of photos of German “kick-offs” he got by mail order along with videos of infamous incidents in Italy and Hungary.
Indeed there is a blossoming cottage industry in hooligan paraphernalia –some of it can be got via magazines, some at ultra shops and some for free as several groups have gone to the trouble of uploading action shots to the Internet. There is an even bigger trade in bringing in the tools of the trade – smoke bombs and Greek flares.
But the business is not entirely import-led. There is a local market supplied by amateur photographers and filmakers. One of these in Budapest, whose nickname is “Chelsea”, spends his Saturday’s with his sidekick “Tottenham”, filming the terraces with a Camcorder. Many of the major ultra groups have their own photographers, whose lenses are firmly fixed on the terraces. In bars frequented by ultras, lads gather at tables and ogle over pictures of Italian away ends covered in coloured smoke.
But while it all may seem to be rather silly, there is a sad sense of history repeating itself. Just as in Britain in the seventies and eighties, hooliganism is becoming accepted as part of the football culture by a generation of young fans. Modern British hooliganism emerged in an era of large scale economic dislocation, high unemployment and alienation amongst working class youth – just what the former Socialist countries are going through now. It was allowed to get out of control due to poor policing methods, badly-organized stadia and a lack of action by football’s authorities, all equally common to Eastern Europe. It has been widely documented how the far right infiltrated the hooligan ranks in the UK, using them as a recruiting ground, and there is growing evidence to suggest the same is happening in several East European countries. On top of it all, Eastern Europe now has a tabloid press ready to give all the media exposure the hooligans need.
UEFA regularly slaps the wrists of clubs like Croatia Zagreb and Ferencvaros, whose fans consistently cause trouble. But this organization does little to help ease the huge disparities between Western and Eastern European football which could themselves cause more problems. UEFA is ordering all clubs in Europe to follow the English example and remove perimeter fencing from their grounds. That might work in Germany or Denmark but I dread to think what could be on the horizon if some of the East European derbies are played without fencing: the former Communist countries are just heading into the stage Britain was at when fences were put up.
It took British police decades to develop a modern method for dealing with trouble in and around football stadia. But that experience could be shared now with their colleagues in the East. Cash could be offered from the millions being reaped across the continent to help Eastern Europe tackle the problem before it gets out of hand. So far there has been no Heysel in Eastern Europe, no tragedies to focus attention on the problem. Organized football violence in the East is just in its infancy, will it be allowed to grow into the beast we once knew?
From WSC 122 April 1997. What was happening this month