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Europe’s hooliganism problem is escalating, and authorities can’t stop it

Police form a line in downtown Marseille, France, on June 10. (Darko Bandic/AP)
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LONDON — For European soccer fans, it's not necessarily the rules on the pitch that create headaches these days, but rather their absence on the stands and outside of the stadiums.

Hooliganism and violence between rival soccer team supporters is not unique to Europe — but its destructive effects are currently particularly on display in France, where the soccer championship Euro 2016 is taking place.

Russia was handed a suspended disqualification on Tuesday, after Russian hooligans were accused of clashing with English fans. Russia says English fans started the provocations.

Although the details of the clashes are still being investigated, one conclusion can be drawn for sure: Europe has a soccer hooliganism problem, and it won't go away anytime soon.

Why the violence is escalating this year

European hooliganism never really went away, although it appeared so for a couple of years. What really happened, however, was a shift of hooligan clashes away from stadiums and into more secret venues. Most hooligan violence does not occur spontaneously, but is instead the result of scheduled confrontations that are often captured on videos uploaded by the groups themselves.

Hidden social media profiles are also used by rival groups to agree on locations and dates for mass fights. The secrecy mainly comes down to an effort of European police authorities to identify known hooligans using high-definition cameras in order to later stop them from traveling to large tournaments, such as the Euro 2016.

But this year, European security services — and above all of them the French police — are already strained by the high terror threat. While officers are patrolling in front of potential terror targets, hooligans have been able to travel around more freely.

For many hooligans, the Euro 2016 might also be the last large-scale international tournament in nearly a decade. The next Euro and World Championships are scheduled to take place in 2018 in Russia and in 2022 in Qatar — two countries where police officers are not expected to hesitate to aggressively confront potential hooligans from abroad or to enforce strict laws. Moreover, the Euro 2020 will be held in over 13 different countries, which likely will prevent large-scale violence.

So, will European hooliganism disappear for the next decades? Definitely not.

Fewer mass-casualty incidents, but no end of violence in sight

Hooliganism has a long history in Europe. Often dubbed the "English disease," it emerged in the 1970s when England fans rioted and attacked supporters of rival teams. That violence occurred between clubs within England, but also on an international stage.

Since then, casualty numbers have declined, but new problems have arisen. As researchers Dominik Antonowicz, Radoslaw Kossakowski and Tomasz Szlendak have pointed out in a jointly published paper, some of the worst hooligan violence that still rattles Europe can be traced back to the time shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

"At the beginning of the political transformation — 1989 — violence was one of the most distinctive elements of football culture in Poland," they wrote. According to the three experts, Polish fans quickly embraced English hooligan culture in a decision that still has repercussions today.

"It reflected the highly turbulent times in politics, the shrinking economy (and raising unemployment) and, most notably, the weak state failing to exert its authority in many aspects of social life. ... Football fanatics, many of whom are young people from lower social classes, represent this part of the population that might feel lost in the dynamics of transformation," the three researchers argued.

Some have described the recent wave of violence among violent Russian soccer fans as marking a new wave or phenomenon among European hooligans, who are better trained to fight and more committed.

"Now many people are boxers or into mixed martial arts, and Russian hooligans often follow a very healthy way of life, avoiding alcohol, which used to be part of the subculture," Russian journalist Andrei Malosolov who also is a co-founder of the country's Soccer Fans' Union, was quoted as saying by the BBC.

Whereas hooliganism in other former Eastern Bloc states was strongly connected to criticism of the government, the opposite appears to be the case now in Russia. Following the violent clashes in southern France, a spokesman for Russia's main federal investigating authority implied on Twitter that the English soccer fans had lost against the Russians because "a normal man, as he should be, surprises them. (The English) are used to seeing 'men' at gay parades." Russia might have some of the world's strictest anti-hooligan laws — but when the violence hits English fans, some officials appear to be unconcerned.

Many security concepts have failed

Although Russian officials now mock European hooligans for allegedly having become too weak, hooliganism in many Western and Eastern European nations is a growing problem.

National statistics speak a clear language. In Germany, for instance, the number of violence-prone soccer fans who regularly attend games of the professional league had increased from 2,880 in 2003 to 4,269 by 2014 — despite the fact that Germany spends up to $120 million on police operations during soccer matches each year.

The strategies of many countries which included spending millions on protecting matches but not tackling the underlying hooligan structures is increasingly viewed as a failure — one that could have destructive repercussions on Thursday.

The German-Polish soccer match on Thursday is now being considered one of the tournament's highest-risk games. "Based on an assessment we made at the end of May, we believe there is a very high chance German and Polish trouble-makers will start fights," Oliver Malchow, the chairman of the German Police Union told English-language news site the Local.

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