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23 April 2005

footie hools, chariot racing hools

Except for the KILL THE JEWS part, this has happened before. For about twenty years, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, Constantinople (now Istanbul), was divided into two violent political factions, the fans of the Purple Chariot Team, and of the Red Chariot Team. Assassinations, roving gangs in the city streets looking for solitary enemy fans, lawlessness, bribery and corruption of referees, many thousands dead -- over chariot racing. The team rivalry completely eclipsed all other political developments in Constantinople for years. Maybe "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" is on-line somewhere, maybe I got the team colors wrong -- but not the mayhem, at times it was as bad as Paris in the Terror. I'll see what I can find.

If I screw up, DON'T rent the video of this one -- get the book by Gibbon. If you're offered the one-volume abridged edition, that's fine.

One night during one of my first trips to Amsterdam I was wandering through Leidseplein -- a marvelously exciting and honky-tonk Tourist Central square infested with fast junk food joints, bars, and extraordinarily delicious and cheap Indonesian restaurants, where the biggest and most famous tourist cannabis coffeehouse, The Bulldog, is. (From Centraalstation, hop the No. 2 Tram.)

I noticed something New and Different: On every streetcorner, a Dutch police officer in paramilitary gear carrying a machine gun at port arms. Naturally I thought it was some sort of -- well, I had no idea what it could possibly have been in Amsterdam. The cops weren't hostile, they paid all us tourists no heed, they didn't even tell us to move along. They were just There.

Later I found out. A big rival, Iuventes, from Italy, was just finishing up the game against Ajax, and nobody knew how it would end. Apparently the cops were worried that if Iuventes lost, the fans might be Sore Losers, and they wanted to be ready for them. These were Football fans, so machine guns were the order of the day. Not to be used. A show of force to encourage the fans to behave and think about going home.

And yet none of this has ever made me want to distance myself in the slightest from Amsterdam. Until now, I haven't been Soccerish. Amsterdam is the most interesting, fun, fascinating, hospitable -- and safe -- city on Earth, I just want to keep going back again and again.

Here's an on-the-ground spin for non-Dutch folks who live in the Netherlands. A Dutch hool offers one interesting possibility: Footie hooliganism isn't nearly as bad as the media makes it out to be -- but that keeps many law-abiding peaceful soccer fans away from games, so media emphasis on the hools is killing Football. It's somebody else's fault, not the hools.


The rise of Dutch
football hooliganism

August 2002

As the 2002-2003 football season kicked off, the antics of Dutch hooligans captured the limelight. Cormac Mac Ruairi gets the story behind Dutch soccer hooliganism and the government's latest crack-down efforts.

Soccer hooligans are posing a challenge to the new centre-right government's mission to push for a return of traditional normen en warden (norms and values) in Dutch society.

Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende wants to scrap the gedogen (tolerance) culture fostered by the last regime and the leading gedogen bogeymen are cannabis coffeeshops, violent street crime and (illegal) immigrants.

But as the 2002-2003 soccer season kicked off in mid August, the antics of Dutch hooligans captured all the media limelight.

A turbulent season kick-off

A game between two of the top football clubs -- Ajax (Amsterdam) and PSV (Eindhoven) -- was delayed for over an hour as PSV supporters blocked the team bus from leaving for Amsterdam on time.

The supporters were protesting against the so-called combi-kaarten, which are all-in-one combined tickets offering users a train ticket and stadium entry.

Dutch football association KNVB chief Henk Kesler reacted furiously, saying compensation would be sought from PSV.

"Either Eindhoven approved of the protest or did not have the will to act against it. Both positions are reprehensible," he said. PSV chairman Harry van Raaij denied the accusation, saying the protest had been initially good-humoured.

But a hooligan decided to send Kesler a threatening letter and bullets in the post. Guus Hiddink, PSV's manager and former coach of South Korea's World Cup side, also received a bullet and death threat.

Earlier this year, Former Dutch international and current coach of Sparta Rotterdam, Frank Rijkaard received a similar threat.

How bad is the problem?

Hooligan supporters of the 18 clubs in the top division and other minor teams have orchestrated a number of riots and fights at football stadiums around the country in recent years. Back in 1997 an Ajax supporter was killed during a fight between Ajax and Rotterdam supporters.

Shortly before Holland hosted the Euro 2000 soccer finals, a riot by Feyenoord Rotterdam hooligans prompted nervous police to open fire with live ammunition.

In March this year commercial TV station SBS 6 had to suspend its live coverage of an Ajax-Utrecht match after hooligans threatened camera personnel. Ajax fans also fought with police in the city's Leidseplein after a cup win.

And they feel it is their right. Ironically, hooligans often criticise the media for reporting adversely on their antics instead of concentrating on the football. The website of one group in The Hague carries the following complaint:

"The witch-hunt on 'football villains' continues relentlessly. The newspapers are full of articles with people writing that we are destroying football. Look, I don't want to say that we are angels but, don't the papers understand that what they do damages football even more. Many people don't even dare to go to a football match due to the exaggeration by the press ..."

Who are these soccer hooligans?

Most are white men in their early 20s who claim to be their team's biggest fans. Taking their cue from their British counterparts, they like to wear designer label clothes rather than the more traditional Doc Martin boots and bomber jackets.

They consider themselves part of a loose European movement of "hools", but they draw most of their inspiration from UK groups. Their websites -- some of which are quite professional -- use English words.

The groups often refer to themselves as "hard core", "bhoyz," a "front" and "fanatics." They want to go "toe-to-toe" with the hools from other Dutch clubs or German clubs and take photos of all violent incidents to prove the superiority of their own team and city. The imagery they use is on a par with (adolescent) heavy metal fans: the devil, fire and the logo on one website drips blood when you click on it.

A website made by a supporter of football club NEC Nijmegen explains that there was little or no organised soccer violence until 1974 when hooligans from UK club Tottenham ran amok in Rotterdam.

"The Feyenoord guys learned the lesson quickly and organised within six months of Tottenham's visit." Soon "sides" of hooligans were being established in all Dutch cities, the hooligan cheerleader wrote.

Holland's top three teams Ajax, Feyenoord and PSV have some of the best-known hooligan gangs but the cities of Nijmegen, Den Bosch and Utrecht have their troublemakers too.

In April, Amsterdam mayor Job Cohen ordered that a trainload of Utrecht supporters be sent home from Amsterdam after their chanted "Hamas, Hamas, send the Jews to the gas" in response to taunts from Ajax fans.

Hooligans often chant anti-Jewish slogans when their team faces Ajax. That is because Ajax, which is the club to hate, has had a long association with the city's Jewish community. And Ajax supporters sometimes refer to themselves as Jews and use the Star of David symbol.

Recently, the police unit that deals with soccer violence claimed that hooligans are increasingly using hard drugs, making them harder to control. Riot police have noted that the eyes of rioters are often "glazed over" and their pain threshold is higher.

What are the authorities doing about the problem?

New sports minister Clemence Ross said recently that she was investigating whether the 1,000 hooligans currently banned from stadiums can also be required to report to police stations during matches.

"The minister will hold discussions with municipalities, the football authorities and police in September to develop ways of dealing with hooliganism," the ministry said. "We are looking at the laws in operation in Britain and will see if similar regulations are needed here."

"Football matches are a family event and we will not let a small number of people spoil that for everyone else. But there has to be a co-operative action against violence."

The KNVB is currently experimenting with a digital supporters ID card. The ID, the size of a credit card, is scheduled for trial by Den Bosch football club starting in September. It uses laser technology and includes digital information about the holder's fingerprints and personal details.

The KNVB hopes to introduce the card on a nation-wide basis to prevent banned hooligans getting into stadiums. If the reaction by PSV supporters to the combination stadium-train ticket is anything to go by, the supporters ID card will face stiff opposition.

Cormac Mac Ruairi worked for eight years as a journalist for the Irish media before moving to Amsterdam in 1998. He freelances for media in the Netherlands.


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