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Soccer Wars Heating Up : When It Comes to Violence, Soviet Fans Can Hold Their Own With Rest of World

November 14, 1987|United Press International

MOSCOW — According to official accounts, it sounded more like a street battle from the Bolshevik revolution than a fight among soccer fans.

Scores of train and shop windows were smashed as rival fans armed with bricks, rocks, bottles and clubs battled on a railway platform in the Ukrainian city of Kiev after a game Sept. 19 between league leading Moscow Spartak and fading powerhouse Dynamo Kiev.

Outmanned militia, normally capable of intimidating the average Russian with a well practiced frosty glare, looked on helplessly as the rioters battled.

"There was an explosion in a telephone booth and the clothes of one Spartak fan were set alight," said an eyewitness account in the Moscovsky Komsomolets newspaper. "Passengers' suitcases were thrown on the rails. I turned my back and was stupefied. An avalanche of people rolled over the platform. A real bloody battle began. Even girls were fighting."

Police made 13 arrests but were criticized for their apparent slow reaction and inability to control the mob.

Just how deep-rooted and potentially dangerous fan rivalries have become was described by a group of Spartak players who were attacked by Dynamo fans as they were window shopping in the Ukrainian capital the day before the match.

The players were so intimidated they refused to wear any type of clothing on the streets of Kiev bearing a Spartak logo after fans had warned they would "get them" if they were not careful.

"There are 5,000 of us, so be careful, beware," one fan shouted at the frightened visitors.

The September riot in Kiev, dubbed by some newspapers as the worst soccer violence in the Soviet Union in the 1980s, has triggered an investigation into what now appears to be a growing and increasingly dangerous phenomenon.

Soviet fans have proved to be great innovators when it comes to the weapons of the soccer wars. Sharpened belt buckles, brass knuckles, car aerials, crude zip guns and homemade fire bombs are the most common.

A month after the Kiev battle, fans from first division club Guriya, in the Georgian town of Lanchkhuti, went berserk after a loss to the visiting Metallist club from the Ukrainian town of Kharkov. Rioters smashed stadium windows and kept the visitors and the referees virtual prisoners in a windowless room for three hours until police arrived to escort them through the hostile mob.

On the same day, Oct. 17, in Vilnius the capital of Lithuania and a hotbed of Lithuanian nationalism and anti-Russian sentiment, about 300 fans of the local Zalgiris club battled groups of fans of the Red Army club in the streets of the city. Police arrested 18 people.

In an attempt to stem the tide of violence, the Soviet Football Federation moved the next six scheduled home games of Guriya to neutral venues "because of the undisciplined conduct of fans" and issued warnings to officials from the Vilnius club to better control the rowdy fans.

So far, no riot deaths have been reported this year but officials believe it may only be a matter of time.

Among measures taken to control the violence have been the barring of alcohol from stadiums and increased police numbers. Cafes and beer bars that have been identified as gathering places for troublemakers are being shut on game days.

Visiting and home fans are being segregated at most stadiums in an attempt to defuse potential clashes. Children under 16 are barred from attending night matches. Women, who once made up a sizable section of stadium crowds, are now a rarity at matches because of the brawling.

The growing regularity and viciousness of the violence is especially alarming because of the normally docile behavior--thanks at least in part to tight police controls--of large crowds in the Soviet Union.

Visiting musicians, especially rock performers, often complain about the lack of response among Soviet crowds. But when it comes to soccer, Soviet crowds are amazingly similar to any others in the world, their banners waving amid the hooting and whistling. To sit in their midst is to feel the undirected anger and frustration of a mob just waiting for a riot to happen.

Some soccer officials put down the new wave of fan violence as a by-product of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of glasnost or openness, with its implied toleration of demonstrations of public sentiment.

Others perceive it as a dangerous reflection of the breakdown of strict law and order fostered by dictator Joseph Stalin and to a lesser degree his successors. Coupled with this view is the perception that soccer fanaticism is a thinly veiled outlet for nationalist sentiments among minority cultures threatened with domination by all things Russian.

"Such football fans without knowledge provide fuel to those who try and give nationalized coloring to such incidents," warned Moscovsky Komsomolets.

Certainly to blame are crowds of bored and disaffected youths, apparently frustrated with the system and seeking any outlet to express that frustration.

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