From a cursory glance, one would think we’re in a golden age of soccer. Lionel Messi is undoubtedly one of the greatest ever to lace up boots, Spain plays the beautiful game more beautifully than anyone else and the World Cup is being hosted by Brazil in just over a year’s time.
But sport, and soccer in general (since it is the world’s game), is meant to unify people on a macro-scale. While Messi’s goals, Spain’s tiki-taka and Brazil’s joga bonito leave us all in awe, there is still an awful lot that troubles me, most of it having to do with off-the-field issues that undermine what we see on it.
Quite often, people die at soccer games. If you are American (like I am), you would probably be surprised at just how many. Almost exactly one year ago, 74 people were killed in a single riot after an Egyptian soccer game in Port Said. Fans rushed the field, the opposing team’s players were literally chased back into their locker room and absolute mayhem ensued. As punishment, an Egyptian court last week issued death sentences for 21 who were instrumental in the riot.
Soccer hooliganism is a major problem all over the globe. In Argentina, when the two biggest teams, Boca Juniors and River Plate, play, it is almost expected that someone will die. This past year’s superclásico thankfully witnessed no fatalities, but there was still a scene of terror. The game was hosted at River Plate’s stadium, and when a security guard stationed in the Boca supporters’ section made a modest celebration after River Plate scored, he got the living daylights beat out of him. He was punched and kicked by about five or six males and thrown down the stairs of the upper deck of the stadium.
I recently met a young woman from Moscow, who told me that hooliganism was so bad there that on the mornings of days when Spartak Moscow played, local news stations advise people not to go near the stadiums or on public transportation towards them.
In some cases, these hooligans have quite a bit of political importance. Serbia’s Red Star Belgrade has perhaps world soccer’s best-known hooligans, the Delije. In the early 1990s, the Delije formed the core of Arkan’s Tigers, a paramilitary group responsible for horrific war crimes in the Yugoslav Wars.
Hooliganism is not the only way in which soccer is betraying its purpose as a unifying force. On Jan. 30, Beitar Jerusalem signed two Muslim players from Chechnya. The two players have not yet played a game for their new club, but have already been abused by 150 fans of the club who came to a practice to spit at the new players and to insult them.
Beitar is the only team in Israel never to have had an Arab player. Their racism extends beyond Arabs, apparently, and is already well-documented. In 2005, Beitar signed a Nigerian player, but he lasted less than a season due to the abuse he faced.
So now you see that soccer is not as pure as it seems. And it gets even worse. On Monday, Europol (a European police intelligence agency) released the findings of a 19-month investigation: 680 matches from roughly 2008–’11, in countries all over the globe, have been implicated in a match-fixing scandal orchestrated by a Singaporean crime syndicate. Almost no country was untouched by Europol’s findings.
Soccer certainly has its stories of great harmony: The Ivorian Chelsea striker Didier Drogba called for peace in his native country, and civil war halted. South Africa showed how far it has come since apartheid by hosting the 2010 World Cup. And I have seen with my own eyes several players who have risen up from the favelas of Brazil to earn large professional contracts.
But that harmony is not the whole story with soccer today. When a sport further antagonizes rival groups and negatively affects larger geopolitical schema, it has a major problem. Not to mention that when people get killed simply for attending a game, something is out of control.