Law in Contemporary Society

Regulating Identity Politics in Sport

-- By RyanMcDevitt - 4 April 2008


Soccer is tied to identity politics in a remarkable and potentially destructive way. The stadium has long provided a sanctuary for political thought and marginalized groups. Under Franco, Real Madrid’s famous white shirt was synonymous with the regime; meanwhile, Barcelona, bastion of Catalan pride, became a symbol of the opposition. Athletic Bilbao offers a similar outlet for Basque nationalism today. The downside to what is often a relatively healthy outlet for dissent and source of pride is when the simmering social tensions underlying these identities boil over into violence. This problem requires creative regulatory solutions, which exemplify the ways private actors can work with the state to solve major social problems. At their most successful, these solutions involve cooperation between three layers of regulation: clubs, league authorities, and the state. When they fail, it is often due to the lack or corruption of one of these layers.


Rome's Fascists

Rome’s two professional teams, Lazio and Roma, are both identified with the Italian far right. Among Lazio’s “ultras”—their most dedicated fans—are the Irreducibli, one of Italy’s most active neo-Nazi groups. Roma’s fascist supporters seem tame by comparison, generally limiting their activity to racist chants and anti-Semitic or nationalist signs at games. The Irreducibli’s most famous alumnus, Paolo di Canio, sparked a major controversy. Di Canio began his playing career at Lazio before moving abroad. Later, he took a 75% pay cut to rejoin his childhood club. He does the fascist salute toward the fans when he scores, an act illegal under Italian law but rarely punished. The problem arose when he did the salute after scoring away at Livorno, identified with by many Italian Jews and home to the Communist Party. Ultimately, the league suspended and fined him for inciting violence, and the government threatened to prosecute him if he ever does it at an away game again. His salute is afforded a kind of free speech protection when done in the presence of fellow fascists, but is essentially considered hate speech when done away from home.

Scottish Sectarianism

Religious prejudice frequently gives rise to violence in the cross-Glasgow rivalry between Celtic, founded by Irish Catholics forced to find work in Scotland after their lands were taken by the crown and granted to Protestants, and Rangers, whose colors and uniforms are derived from the blue-and-white Scottish cross. Last month a Catholic Celtic supporter had his throat cut in Belfast when a Rangers mob attacked a Celtic pub after a match. A combination of club, league, and state action has successfully reduced the incidence of violence, at least in Glasgow. The clubs built fenced-in sections and separate exits for away fans; the state passed legislation outlawing sectarian songs and signs, punishable by permanent banishment from attending matches; and the league agreed to fine the clubs or dock them points if their fans violate the prohibition. Here, the private and public actors worked together to create incentives for everyone to behave, even as Celtic and Rangers jerseys keep their proud associations.

Tottenham's Favorite German

Tottenham Hotspur is in a London neighborhood with a historically large Jewish population and is thus popular among British Jews. Anti-Semitic incidents at Tottenham’s away games were once commonplace. When Parliament and the league enacted laws like the banning orders in Scotland, hooliganism declined throughout Britain. An interesting thing happened in Tottenham. Violence against the club’s fans, though largely directed at its Jewish identity, had been meted out blindly. This shared history of fear brought together Tottenham’s fans regardless of creed and created pride in the club’s Jewish association. When the club signed the tall, blond Jurgen Klinsmann—vice-captain of the German national team—its fans began to sing perhaps the best player song in all of soccer: (to the tune of the chimney sweep song from Mary Poppins) “Chim-chiminy chim-chiminy chim-chim-cheroo, Jurgen was a German, but now he’s a Jew.” Klinsmann’s evident joy at this welcome made him a fan favorite.


Too Late in Italy

State action is often the missing ingredient when schemes aimed at solving these problems fail. Roma and Lazio long refused to police their fans, but two ugly incidents in the last year caused the state to force them: the stabbings of several Manchester United fans by nationalist Roma fans and the murder of a policeman separating fighting fans outside a stadium elsewhere. Clubs are now responsible for the violence of their fans, and have adopted measures that have been effective in Britain, such as fencing in away supporters for their own protection and banning offending fans. Lazio’s management still gets its wrist slapped regularly for its fans’ racist chants, and it refuses to disallow anti-Semitic signs, but progress is being made.


There are exceptions to the success of state action. In Italy, AC Milan is perceived to have avoided severe punishment for a major incident—fans threw hundreds of fireworks onto the field in misguided support of a player suspended for racially abusing an opponent, deafening or injuring several fans and players—because the club’s owner, Silvio Berlusconi, was also Prime Minister at the time. In Spain, Real Betis refuses to obey an order from the league and government to temporarily play its games elsewhere due to safety concerns about the club’s aging stadium; the fact that the club’s majority owner and former president is in prison for bribery has not been overlooked in noting local authorities’ refusal to enforce the order.

...And Worse

Finally, the most disturbing example of soccer-related identity politics leading to violence occurred in the former Yugoslavia. The Serbian war criminal Arkan’s feared death squads, the Tigers, were simply Red Star Belgrade’s notoriously violent ultras, repurposed as paramilitaries. Rather than stop them, the Milosevic government equipped them out of the Serbian police arsenal and allowed them to keep the proceeds of looting.


Sports team affiliation can be a healthy expression of political identity and a sanctuary for the marginalized. Effective regulation can solve the conflicts that arise when identities clash. Britain and Italy have achieved some success in reducing violence through cooperation, but exceptions remain where cooperation breaks down or, worse, the state encourages violence.

-- RyanMcDevitt - 04 Apr 2008

  • All that work for a conclusion that constitutes one banality or truism after another. Those who interest themselves in European football might find the reportage here engaging, unless they happened to know it all already. For those of us who do not, something more needs to be made of this material for the essay to have any purpose.



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r4 - 22 Jan 2009 - 02:10:01 - IanSullivan
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