Villains on the Pitch

Staff Writer

Soccer is commonly referred to as the “beautiful game.” At its peak, it is a spectacle of thrilling showmanship and sportsmanship. Soccer can unite towns, cities and nations in moments of glory, and console them in more humbling times. Soccer has brought pause to war and relief to inclement weather. It is a sport that is adored around the world, across a vast range of differences and circumstances. Yet the beauty that the game encompasses is but one end of the spectrum.

The other end—the ugly one—is laid bare every so often; most recently in Egypt where an estimated 79 spectators were killed and another 1,000 injured in a soccer riot during a game between rivals, Al-Ahly and Al-Masry. On February 4, 2012, fans rushed onto the soccer field in Port Said after Al-Masry defeated Al-Ahly 3-1. Players were attacked and a brawl broke out between fans of the opposing teams, sparking a two-day clash between rioters and police.

While the violence can be attributed to civilian protests and a general state of unrest following the Egyptian revolution that ousted despot Mubarak, the stage on which the events took place was a soccer field. This fact holds some significance.

In this recent case, an unprovoked fight started by soccer hooligans morphed into a violent social and political protest—an ongoing occurrence in today's Egypt. In most cases, hooliganism is less philosophical and more senseless. Notions of pride and honour undergo a perverted game of reasoning to "justify" destructive behaviour like fighting and vandalism. In England, where the practice has withstood the test of time, hooligans form "firms", in support and violent defence, of their home teams. The history of hooliganism is full of tragedy and absurdity, and is an affliction that continues to draw on the perceptions and vulnerabilities of disenchanted youth (as well as the boredom and banality of mindless idiots) in England and across Europe.

Soccer's ugly side has, from time to time, been personified by some of its better known players. John Terry, former captain of the English national team and defender for Chelsea FC, is perhaps the embodiment of the prototypical soccer villain. Terry is an alleged womanizer and cheater (he reportedly carried on an affair with his best friend's girlfriend while married with two kids), barroom brawler (he was charged with assaulting a nightclub bouncer) and is currently awaiting trial for a racist comment he uttered to Anton Ferdinand during a league match against Queens Park Rangers back in November. Terry, of course, denies the comments were racist, which might have held some weight if it weren’t for his running list of past transgressions. In addition to being found criminally charged for a racially aggravated offence, the English Football Association (FA), England's soccer governing body, has stripped Terry of the captain's armband, which he was to wear at this summer's European Championship hosted jointly by Poland and Ukraine.

Despite all this, Terry and others like him still seem to find sympathizers in and around the league. For example, England's coach, Fabio Capello, was recently seen on Italian television disapproving of the FA's decision to remove Terry as England's captain. In a similar case, Uruguayan international and Liverpool player Luis Suarez repeatedly used a racial slur to refer to Patrice Evra during a match against Manchester United last October. The FA handed Suarez a £40,000 (GBP) fine and an eight game suspension. The team's response? Liverpool FC had the rest of the team wear shirts in support of Suarez during pre-match training.

Racism in soccer continues to persist across Europe. FIFA, soccer's international governing body, has made efforts to address the issue through a "Say No To Racism" campaign founded in 2002. While there is some truth to the idea that a small minority can make the rest look bad, players have a responsibility to their fans, especially the young and impressionable ones, to be role models and take the initiative to weed this type of abusive behaviour out of the game. The business of soccer has become so big that players like Terry and Suarez, who make thousands of dollars per match, have forgotten that ultimately the value of their personal stock rises and falls with the amount of t-shirts they can sell. By alienating sub-sections of their team's fan base, they hurt themselves, their teammates and the reputation of the game.

Soccer's claim to being the beautiful game has suffered as a result of the ugliness of certain fans, players and management. However, these plights are reflective of those felt in other sports and are part of greater issues facing a modern society. The beauty of soccer—and that of any other activity that unites the masses—may yet be found in its ability to be a forum for healing and incremental positive change.