“Ninguna bandera vale la pena si debajo de ella puede esconderse un solo violento” – “No flag is worth defending if under its protection can hide a single radical fan” (Riazor Blues’ official release, October 2003)
The morning of November 30, 2014, a fan of my hometown soccer team Deportivo La Coruña was beaten to death and then thrown in the Manzanares River by Atlético de Madrid neo-Nazi hooligans. This happened during a violent clash between radical supporters of both teams that preceded Deportivo’s La Liga match against Atlético, and that involved more than 200 people. The Manzanares River runs through Madrid and close to Vicente Calderón stadium, where Atlético play their home games. The Deportivo supporter died from cardiac arrest and hypothermia.
The victim was Francisco Javier Romero, alias “Jimmy,” alias “el Abuelo” (“the Grandfather”), a veteran member of Deportivo’s radical supporter group Riazor Blues. Jimmy Romero was the second Deportivo fan to die in eleven years: 8 October 2003, Riazor Blues fanatics kicked a fan called Manuel Ríos to death after Ríos interceded in defense of a youngster who was wearing a rival team’s jersey and was being harassed by members of the Blues.
Jimmy Romero wasn’t precisely an angel. A father of two, he was in his early forties. He had a police record, and a history of drug abuse and violence. And besides, what type of man –what type of father—leaves his family during the weekend to travel 400 miles by bus and take part purposefully in a violent and brutal battle? (The ultras of both groups have agreed upon the fight two weeks in advance by Whatsapp.) What leads a group of men to get together, under the pretext of a sport event, and to let out such a wave of vandalism and violence? The adrenaline rush? The appeal of battle –of “the chase,” as one of the radicals put it? Those are primary elements belonging to the brain of the male caveman. So, it’s difficult to say. Probably idiocy, fanaticism, lack of culture and education, lack of awareness or common sense, irrationality, and gang-like behavior–all together trigger this kind of behavior. “Si esto sale mal, tal vez acabe en el río” – “If this goes wrong, I maybe will end up in the river,” Jimmy had said to a Riazor Blues friend days before the clash—a dark omen.
The events shocked Spain’s soccer universe, which is the same thing as to say that shocked the whole nation—such is fútbol’s omnipresence in my fellow Spaniards’ life and daily conversations. My hometown of La Coruña grew outraged by the events, but also bitterly divided about the responsibility of our own Riazor Blues radical group. I know personally, or I have known over the years, several Riazor Blues members. Most of them are adolescents, or young men who just want to go to Deportivo’s games, support their team, albeit in a loud and obnoxious way, and have a great time. Some are dangerous people, repeated offenders who have already had problems with the judicial system and runs with the police. In a city like La Coruña, it could be extremely easy to identify and isolate the violent radicals.
Three weeks after Jimmy’s death, the police detained four suspects, among them a 21-years-old student and a 33-years-old taxi driver, married and with two young children, who lived in a blue-collar Madrid suburb. These arrests calmed down the anger in Coruña. But still many key issues are lingering in the air.
For violence in soccer is a plague. I was one among millions of soccer aficionados around the world who turned on the TV May 29 1985, to watch the European Cup Final between Juventus and Liverpool—just to hear the horrific news telling what had happened one hour before the start of the game: escaping fans were pressed against a wall resulting in 39 people dead (mostly Juventus fans) and over 600 injured.
It’s intolerable and irrational that, by just attending a sport event, someone can be exposed to extreme violence, and at the mercy of a group of vandals. This is a curse, a curse that has been allowed in Spain’s (and in many other countries like Brazil’s or Argentina’s) soccer stadiums for years. I’ve seen it, anyone going to a soccer match any given Sunday could have seen it: youngsters so drunk that they lose conscience, verbal violence, homophobic or racist insults, offensive and vulgar chants, fights and violent clashes between radical groups who have their histories and their scores to settle.
In the aftermath of Jimmy’s death, many soccer personalities (players, coaches, but especially general managers, team owners, and team presidents) pointed to “society” as the main cause of violence in soccer. “I want to say that this has nothing to do with football,” Atlético president Enrique Cerezo said in an interview with Spain’s TVE. “This is a social issue, to be linked to political ideologies,” stated Atlético’s CEO Gil Marín. “This is a social problem, not a football problem,” was Diego Simeone’s (Atlético’s coach) take on the issue. “Violence deserves strong condemnation. We live in a society in which there is lots of tension, lots of inequality… I don’t understand it,” commented Deportivo’s coach Víctor Fernández.
Yes: what happened to Jimmy Romero, regardless of his own responsibility for initially engaging in such behavior, it’s an atrocity, an act of vandalism and roguery that goes beyond soccer. I define it as deeply backwards, barbarian. There is something of medieval hatred and fanaticism in it. It goes against the most basic rules of social harmony. To have a mob strike a man to death, and then throw him into a river and let him die… I believe it does brings us back to the darkness of medieval times. An event like this, in plain sight, in the streets of an European capital… makes you wonder how fragile the social contract really is.
After Jimmy Romero’s death Spain’s soccer and federal authorities have finally intervened. Spain’s soccer leaders speak of “un antes y un después,” de “un punto de inflexion” – “a before and an after,” “a turning point” or “a bend in the road.” “Se acabó el mundo ultra en España” – “The hooligans are finished in Spain,” declared Miguel Cardenal, Spain’s top governmental official in matters of sport.
First they have banned all radical groups from Spain’s stadiums, a movement started five years ago when Barcelona C.F. expelled the Boixos Nois from the Nou Camp, and followed two years ago by Real Madrid banning ultras supporter group Ultra Sur from Santiago Bernabeu stadium. Then, authorities are filing lawsuits and punishing with hefty penalties clubs allowing racist, xenophobic, and insulting chants against rivals’ players, supporters, or even against the referees, which was a well-spread practice in Spain. To Spain’s soccer fans credit, humor has taken off, as so often happens in our country. (Humor was the people’s favorite weapon to denounce the authorities’ lack of efficient action to stop the spreading of the Ebola virus in Madrid, several months ago.) Imaginative, humorous chants, using euphemisms and clever plays on words, are now being used. (See for instance “Llega el eufemismo al mundo del fútbol” – http://www.elmundo.es/enredados/2014/12/09/5486aa1bca4741e9778b4573.html.)
All this is good. Europe has to follow the model of American sports. I’ve gone to many sports events in the U.S.—NCAA and professional sports; baseball, basketball, soccer, football. There is some verbal violence and the occasional fight. But I haven’t seen the destructive passion and hatred I’ve witnessed around European soccer stadiums. In America fans usually cheer for their team, and often they are even gracious with the rival fans. There is also a widespread respect for the referees –a culture mostly promoted by athletes and coaches—that is totally alien to European soccer, and especially Spain’s and Latino America’s soccer.
It is a social problem. It goes deeper than that: it projects the worst side of our human nature. But the soccer world has not done enough to control this issue. Certainly, British and German authorities took the lead years ago. They started imprisoning violent supporters, banning them for life from stadiums, making them pay expensive fines. But violence is still widespread—and we are not even close to eradicate it. After Jimmy Romero’s death The Guardian published a fine piece. (See http://www.theguardian.com/football/blog/2014/dec/01/death-jimmy-romero-spanish-football-violence.) But what was even more interesting was some of the comments readers posted in response to the article, stating what all soccer fans know well. A certain “west2202” wrote:
“There are fights in Germany almost every week and there are still organised fights in England. Its just outside of the limelight so u dont know about it. In Holland Ajax fan was burned in their clubhouse by a rival firm and in Sweden hooliganism has really grown. Dont make it out to be just a problem of few countries when it really is a problem everywhere in Europe.”
“Just Stockport playing Chester in an FA cup qualifier lead to 250 fans briefly fighting in Stockport. Just because it’s not reported doesn’t mean it’ not happening.”
December 11, 2014 (twelve days after Jimmy’s death), Barcelona radicals stabbed two PSG supporters after a Champions League game; one of them was in serious condition. The same day, journalists photographed members of far-right Frente Atlético in Juventus’ stadium in Turin, Italy, in a Champions League match displaying neo-Nazi salutations and slogans—with total impunity:
The real problem is soccer’s inability to discuss the question at the core of the issue: Why soccer –and not other sports events—is channeling this rage, this fanaticism, this intransigence? I haven’t found a single person –not one—who has been able to explain why soccer breeds this extreme violence, beyond the most obvious platitudes like “it’s a social issue, it’s not a soccer problem, etc.” IT IS A SOCCER PROBLEM. We don’t hear about violent clashes in European basketball games, NFL games, MLB World Series… We don’t hear of violent clashes at Arthur Ashe Stadium, or at Wimbledon, between Federer’s and Nadal’s fans; or fights at Augusta because Phil Mickelson missed a key putt; and I don’t see any supporter being beaten to death in a track meeting over a 100-metre dash.
Social rage, inequality, lack of culture and education, and poverty are there of course. (And, speaking of poverty: believe me, it’s not cheap any more to get into a Spanish stadium to watch live a La Liga game.) But these factors are also present in other facets or moments of daily life (riding the subway, going to school, at work, at church, in restaurants and bars…) without resulting on citizens being stabbed, murderer, beaten to death. And I don’t buy the explanation that this is gang-like behavior, linked to the psychology of masses and group behavior. We don’t hear of opera fans stabbing each other after a Lincoln Center matinée; or crowds getting into violent behavior at the Louvre Museum…
Soccer personalities used to live in oblivion. In enraged me. It angers me that they are missing the point: that the violent is the taxi driver, the student, the waiter, the guy next door, the neighbor… They are walking the streets of our European cities, disguising their true colors… until Saturday, or Sunday, when the next match comes: under the cloak of manliness, they will thrive in aggression and brutality.
“Ninguna bandera vale la pena si debajo de ella puede esconderse un solo violento” – “No flag is worth defending if under its protection can hide a single radical fan.” This was a Riazor Blues’ official release, October 2003, after the killing of Deportivo’s soccer fan Manuel Ríos. Now, after Jimmy Romero’s death, they are fighting dissolution and arguing that they have the right to keep their organization alive.
There is something in soccer that brings out human beings’ most extreme behavior, the good and the bad. When going right, football can become the most exhilarating, harmonic collective experience—true social communion. When going bad, football brings about the most irrational and destructive passion. Until we are able to explain and address this paradox, our sport will be tainted with blood.