The Ugly Side Of The Coin

Football, as anything else, has a side that no one really likes to talk about, and a side that everyone wishes wasn’t real. An ugly side of the coin that seems to be ingrained in football’s history and identity. On Sunday, 23rd of September, a man left his home to support his beloved team many miles away. He never came back. Another tragedy, among many, that shows how violence has been so prevalent in world football. Unfortunately.

It was a classic Indonesian derby between arch rivals Persib Bandung and Persija Jakarta, and it was a sort of match that would be a perfect dictionary definition of a derby. Players giving out fouls like Oprah gives out gifts for her live audience. A five-goal thriller, as any derby should be. The icing on the cake? A 94th minute winner from a set-piece that went in via a deflected header that sent the home fans into delirium. The joy, however, was soon put to a halt and desolation takes over, when a life of an away fan was taken away after a violent brawl had erupted.

The Indonesian public responded with grief along with anger, but also with a hint of cynicism and skepticism. One said that this will never entirely go away, and all the condolences and the prayers for a better future for Indonesian football, are just temporary facade. The discussion will fade out. The grief will be shortlived. Haringga will soon be forgotten. Violence will prevail in football.

But will they? And more importantly, should they?

A classic derby between arch rivals, but one that has a sour note.

Violence in football fan culture is not exactly exclusive to Indonesia. Many parts of the world have witnessed similar tragedies, from Bulgaria to Brazil. Historically speaking, the UK is regarded to be the early hotbeds of football hooliganism. Violent brawls were carried out by organized groups known as “firms”, and more often than not, those brawls led to deaths.

Take example the death of 24-year-old John Dickinson, an Arsenal fan who was stabbed to death by West Ham fans in 1982. Or take the Heysel tragedy, where 39 Juventus fans were crushed to death after a swarm of Liverpool fans broke through a police barrier and into the opposing fans, which led to a wall breaking down.

This so-called “English disease” took the spotlight with a backdrop of grim, class-divided Britain at that time. This speaks some sense as it is discovered that when English football went through a degree of gentrification, hooliganism starts to lose its place. But we’ll get to that later.

The Heysel tragedy that marked a dark day for the world of football.

Outside the UK, you can find football violence in many corners of Europe. Football Daily had compiled ten of the most notorious football firms, including FK Sarajevo’s “Horde of Evil”, Feyenoord’s “S.C.F.”, Red Star Belgrade’s “The Heroes”, and Roma’s “Curva Sud”. Notable violent occasions carried out between these firms include stabbing of opposition fans, rioting on the streets, organized armed brawls, and shooting. Borderline inhumane acts, to say the least.

South America also had its fair share of football violence. One notable outrageous tragedy was the political war-related clash between El Salvador and Honduras known as “The Football War” causing approximately 2100 deaths. In Brazil and Argentina, there are also organized groups of fans known for “their penchant for fighting fans of other teams”. The latter has experienced a steady rise of fatal cases, peaking in 2013 with 30 football related deaths.

Africa is no stranger to football violence as well. Difference is, football violence in this region often erupted spontaneously, not organized. There are many occasions where teams had to play behind closed doors as their fans are banned from attending. In 2012, a clash between fans of Al-Ahly and Al-Masry resulted in 74 people killed, known as the “Port Said massacre”.

Remembering the casualties of Port Said massacre.

What these examples tell us about last Sunday’s tragedy is how ugly football can get. Of course, this does not represent the values of football itself – instead it damages the sport – and it is important to see the nature of how these clashes happened. Martin Alsiö, a Swedish independent football historian, compiled some data acquired from many researches on the history of football related deaths. It is discovered that the deadliest cause of deaths in football is related to error in stadium safety, such as over-capacity; locked or tight exits; barrier, war, or arena section collapsing; and fire breaking out. As of 2013, these causes lead to a total of 66 incidents.

Violence-related causes, however, are very much apparent as well. Political-social conflict had caused 13 incidents as of 2013. Take example the aforementioned “The Football War” between El Salvador and Honduras. As Alsiö summed it, “This social conflict had been going on for years, but escalated into full war by decisions taken by the responsible politicians in the two countries.” Another example is the “Port Said massacre” between fans of Al-Ahly and Al-Masry. Armed supporters of Al-Masry attacked and killed 74 opposition fans in “what was supposed to be a revenge for the political Arabic Spring.”

This means the core of conflict in many of these cases actually lies far outside the football pitch. Politics and social dynamics, as we know, transcends into many dimensions of life, including football, the world’s most popular sport. Football clubs often have identities and history associated to them, and some identities can clash against each other, creating a complex dynamic (see the Old Firm derby). And because the public that attends these football matches are involved with those political and social dynamics, it is quite unsurprising, to me at least, that clashes can break out and even leads to death.

The politics and social dynamics have always been apparent in the Old Firm derby.

Another cause that we need to look at is fans attacking fans, which led to 12 recorded incidents as of 2013. For this, we can refer to hooligan firms in football, with violent tendencies and “the desire for fans to assert themselves over their rivals”, as said by Professor Anthony King, an expert on football fan culture from Exeter University on 2010.

Professor King said that hooliganism “is not caused by what goes on the pitch, although it can be a factor in the intimidation and can precipitate violence.” This has a similar ring to how political and social dynamics can transcend into violence in football. Rivalries will always exist in football, and most times, they give extra meaning to players, clubs, and fans. But some sections of fans, with little to no humanity left in them, are overshadowed by hatred that even the death of an opposition fan amuses them.

This factor, along with social and political conflicts, are too difficult and multifaceted to be dealt with by mere football associations. In England, it takes quite a while to slow down their hooliganism disease. What they did to halt its growth, according to researchers Todd Jewell, Rob Simmons and Stefan Szymanski, is by mitigation (implementation of tougher and stricter laws along with improved policing and stewarding) along with gentrification (increase in TV deals, sponsors, and ticket prices to increase incomes). “From 1999-2009, when tighter controls were imposed on the fans and rising incomes led to a degree of gentrification, these effects disappeared” said Simmons to The Guardian.

Stewards are an important cog to ensure safety for supporters.

Hooliganism did not completely go away from English football, though. But as Sean Ingle from The Guardian said, “there is far less really nasty stuff than 30 years ago”, and that is very important to work on and keep working on. What this tells us is that we need to realize, accept, and address that violence and football may be too intertwined to be completely separated in a fortnight – not in the world we live in.

No football fans should be worried for their lives when watching and supporting their beloved teams. No one should sacrifice their lives to watch football. In an ideal world, football is an attraction, a roller-coaster of emotions, a collective scream of joy or tears of defeat, an exchange of banter, cheers, and jeers – not stray punches, tear gas, stab wounds, bruised arms, and violent deaths. These things should not deserve a place in football, but harsh reality filled with complex dynamics says otherwise. As long as it does, mitigation – along with sanction – is very, very important.

In Haringga’s case, I seriously hope – but skeptically doubt – that the higher execs over at PSSI and clubs across the country take strong notice and implement tough actions to deal with this tragedy. But until the association, the clubs, and the overall football fans in Indonesia start caring for human lives of football fans, I suggest you to just watch through the telly.



Rest in peace, Haringga.

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