On Wednesday, VICE World of Sports will air a documentary on Serbia's Eternal Derby, which pits Serbia's two biggest soccer teams—Red Star and Partizan—against one another in what is one of the most epic rivalries in world soccer. Their stadiums are only a half-mile apart, and their fans don't just want to win; they want blood. Many U.S. viewers will see a side of fan culture that simply doesn't exist in the United States: hooliganism, coordinated fan violence, and fan choreography so spectacular the match itself must be stopped. The scenes are truly wild.
It's enough to make you wonder how it's possible that this kind of thing still happens. In the 1980s, soccer hooliganism was a problem in a number of Western European countries, most notably in England, but stadium violence is rare today.
To put it another way, 27 years after the tragedy at Hillsborough, which resulted in a number of reforms that made stadiums safer in England—and influenced the stadium experience in the rest of Europe—how is it that some stadiums remain so dangerous, and some fans so violent?
The show gets at this question, but what's amazing is that the violence depicted in our documentary, which was shot last spring, hasn't ended. Just last month, a Red Star fan was killed while fighting with opposing fans.
So as you watch, here are a few things to consider:
1.How much does infrastructure play a role? Can more be done to keep fans separated once inside the stadium?
2.What role do the police play? Can they do more to prevent some of the more extreme behavior depicted in the documentary? If so, why don't they?
3.What does Serbia's recent history have to do with fan violence?
4.How are economic factors related to fan culture in Belgrade?
5.What are some practical steps that authorities could take to make this less volatile? Should anything be done?
According to Ivan Loncarevic, a Serbian journalist and soccer expert, one of the major underlying issues is the presumed link that is "sometimes very strong between supporters' groups and teams, political parties and the police itself." Supporters' groups are "often better organized, financially stronger and more numerous even then the special police units (gendarmerie)."
Nevertheless, Loncarevic believes safety can be improved. It's simply a matter of will. "A lot can be learned [from England's example], definitely," he said.
He's not the first to consider how England's example could be exported. Before the 2012 Euro Cup in Poland and Ukraine, the BBC published a highly critical documentary entitled "Stadiums of Hate", which focused on fan violence and racism in Polish and Ukrainian soccer. The scenes it depicted—fighting in the stands, racist chants—were all too familiar to the BBC's audience. In the 1980s, and early '90s England had similar fan trouble that grew so visible, and became so synonymous with English soccer, that some began calling the UK's hooliganism the "English disease." Nowadays, that disease seems largely cured.
Following the tournament, Matthew R. Watson, an American lawyer, considered England's example—and how it could change things in Poland and Ukraine—more closely. In 2013, he published a paper in the Emory International Law Review, titled "The Dark Heart of Eastern Europe: Applying the British Model to Football-Related Violence and Racism." Although his title is a bit sensational, Watson's conclusions seem practical. He recommends countries "enact legislation establishing mandatory travel restrictions and banning orders for individuals convicted of football-related crimes" and "criminalizing hate speech."
Banning troublemakers is an idea that comes right from England. The most famous reform following the Hillsborough disaster was a move away from standing room areas in English stadiums to all-seater venues. But in 1999, the government began banning known troublemakers from stadiums, which tempered fan violence noticeably.
Malcolm Tarbitt, Executive Director of Safety and Security at the International Centre for Sport Security (ICSS), suggested de-escalating police activity, while counterintuitive, might also help improve security. "The debate around combating hooliganism all too often focuses on policing and law enforcement at matches," he said via email, "however at the ICSS, we believe that prevention through community outreach and fan engagement is a far more effective, long-term approach to addressing stadium violence." In other words, visible riot police might actually escalate tensions among large groups of people. (Keep this in mind while you watch tonight.)
Neither Watson nor Tarbitt were looking at the situation in Serbia, which in many ways is unique: The Yugoslav Civil War still casts a long shadow over life in Serbia. Yet when we talked to Loncarevic, the Serbian expert, he made a number of similar recommendations, like banning offending people and groups, improving police effectiveness, and encouraging clubs and fan groups to work together to solve some of these issues.
Although decreased fan violence largely went hand in hand with increased match-day revenue in England, those in power in Serbian soccer might not see commercialization as a reasonable end—it's possible that the seemingly terrifying status quo serves them just fine, assuming some fan violence serves political ends, which, according to Loncarevic, is what many in Serbia believe. Ultimately, Loncarevic believes the power to create change lies with Serbia's soccer administrators, who could take a much harder line by suspending specific groups or canceling games altogether should violence continue. Unfortunately, according to Loncarevic, the will to do so "does not exist at any level at this moment."
"Supporting a team is a part of one's culture but it has to be nurtured," Loncarevic said. "A ban for hooligans and criminals to attend matches is the first step, but it can come only when everyone involved reaches a mutual and undisputed agreement on a strategy to end hooliganism."
Aleksandra Niksic contributed to this report.