Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser


English lessons for Italian football
Corriere della Sera - February 9th 2007

Ever since Italian football entered its crisis of violence, my Italian friends have been asking me questions: how did Britain solve its problems of football violence? What can Italy learn from Britain? Why is it that football, uniquely among sports, provokes such outbursts of violence among its fans? I am not sure that I am well qualified to answer such profound questions. But some things, at least, are clear from the British experience.

The first is a sobering point. It is that Britain has not, in reality, solved the problem of violence among football supporters. This problem still exists. Yes, it has been reduced, compared with the situation 20 years ago. But it has not gone away. Any Briton who claims that it has gone is guilty of wishful thinking, or else is not paying attention to the facts.

The second important fact about English football is that actually, we had two different problems, which became combined in tragedy. One was the problem of violence between opposing groups of supporters. The other, though, was the fact that British football stadiums were outdated and rather dangerous places for big crowds of people to gather in. The tradition of having spectators stand on crowded terraces rather than using seats, together with poor exit routes for the crowds, led to the tragedy that took place in Sheffield, in north-east England, in 1989, when 96 people died when a stampede took place inside the stadium, and they were crushed to death. It was not the direct result of violence between supporters. But it was related to the atmosphere of fear and danger that prevailed in those outdated stadiums at that time, and to the high steel fences that had been erected to keep violent fans away from the pitch and thus ended up trapping them.

This was the crisis that changed football in Britain. It followed a series of other tragedies, in which violence was directly involved, particularly the terrible events at the Heysel stadium in Belgium in 1985 when Liverpool fans fought against Juventus supporters, and a wall collapsed, killing 39 people. But the reaction to such tragedies of violence was essentially a limited one, of banning English clubs from European competitions and trying to identify and punish violent supporters. The Sheffield disaster provoked a broader response.

Football clubs, both big and small, were forced to modernise their stadiums with crowd safety in mind. So stadiums were required to be rebuilt, to provide every spectator with a seat and with much better evacuation routes in case of an emergency. This also made it easier for clubs and the police to control the location of different groups of fans and to limit their freedom to move around the stadium in search of a fight.

In the end, however, the battle against football violence has to be a rather conventional and mundane, if expensive, affair: it depends on the willingness of police and clubs to work together to gain intelligence about gangs and individual hooligans; on their willingness to use that intelligence ruthlessly to exclude those troublemakers from admission to the football stadiums; and on the presence at stadiums of thousands of police for every match, in addition to private security men employed by the clubs. In Britain, it has been that effort that has succeeded in reducing the frequency of violence inside and outside the stadiums on match days.

It has not eliminated violence altogether, because football still attracts the sort of relatively uneducated and violent young men who like to gather in tribal gangs, to exploit the emotion of the "beautiful game" as an excuse for violence. So the British have no cause for smugness or complacency about hooliganism at their game. There is no reason to look at Italian football and feel superior.

Well, perhaps there is just one reason. It is that in Britain, faced with the disaster at Sheffield, the football clubs themselves really did decide that they had better do something to make football safer and more secure. They became convinced, partly by laws and partly by fear for their business, that it was their responsibility to try to control gangs among their supporters and to spend the money necessary to do so. It was not just something that could be left to the police. That acceptance does not appear to have taken place yet in Italy.


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