Magazine article UNESCO Courier

A Red Card for the Round Ball

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

A Red Card for the Round Ball

Article excerpt

FRANCOIS THEBAUD is a French journalist who has covered all the major international football competitions since the end of the Second World War. He was the founder/editor-in-chief of the football magazine Le Miroir du football (1959-1977) and is a former sports writer on the Swiss daily paper La Tribune de Lausanne. His biography of the Brazilian footballer Pele was published in the United States by Harper and Row in 1976.

May 1964, the National Stadium in Lima--320 dead; June 1968, the River Plate Stadium in Buenos Aires--80 dead; January 1971, Ibrox Park in Glasgow--66 dead; February 1974, Cairo--48 dead; October 1982, the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow--99 dead; May 1985, the Heysel Stadium in Brussels--39 dead; April 1989, Hillsborough, Sheffield--94 dead.

The settings for all these tragedies were football stadiums, and their victims were men, women and children who were there to watch a big soccer match. Since no other sport has ever been plunged into mourning by catastrophes on such a scale, perhaps we should ask ourselves whether there is not some sort of special relationship between soccer and violence.

Soccer supporters resent this accusation against the most popular of all sports. They argue that violence is endemic in modern society, where it takes the most varied forms, from mass slaughter on the battlefield to delinquency and crime. Soccer stadiums are not exempt, because the people who flock to them are also products of society.

If that is true, why is it, then, that athletics meetings and basketball or rugby matches are not prone to the same baleful effects of their social environment and do not give rise to the kind of scene that so horrified those who witnessed the Heysel disaster on television?


Soccer--Association Football--is clearly not at the root of violence. Yet it seems to offer people more opportunities to get it out of their system, primarily because in the 166 countries affiliated to the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), it is the most popular sport in terms of the number of people who play it, the size of its public, and the passions it arouses.

Packing people together like sardines on the lower-priced terraces often leads to incidents that are not always reported in the press. However, when the people on the terraces are fans who have come to give "their" team unconditional support and to exhibit equally unconditional hostility towards the opposing side and its supporters, the resulting crush inevitably tends to degenerate into violence.

Attempts have been made to separate the different groups of supporters and cordon them off in enclosures situated well away from one another, as well as keep close watch on them when they enter or leave the ground, but these measures have proved inadequate, as the Heysel tragedy showed. Club managers and sporting federations came to realize that far-reaching changes were needed in the design of stadiums, which often dated from pre-war times, and even as far back as the early years of the century in the case of the United Kingdom. In theory, stadiums hosting international matches are now supposed to have only seated accommodation, not so much for the comfort of the spectators as for safety reasons. Furthermore, they are fitted out with electronic surveillance devices capable of detecting the slightest sign of violence and enabling the police to take rapid action.


The vast number of people attending soccer matches is not sufficient in itself to account for the game's unfortunate propensity for violence. In both Europe and Oceania, rugby matches attract crowds of 50,000, and no serious incident has ever been recorded. Rugby is a sport that is just as "manly" as soccer in certain respects, but it attracts a different public and does not trigger off the same reactions.

Rugby football crowds have not changed since the 1950s. …

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