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Europe: Soccer Marred By Violence, Sparking World Cup Concerns

By most accounts, it’s been a violent season at the top of European soccer. The world’s most prestigious club tournament, the Champions League, began last fall in Rome with an attack by fans on a Swedish referee. That same referee later retired from officiating after receiving what he called repeated death threats from fans of top English club Chelsea. This week, as the Champions League completed its quarterfinal stage, violence again erupted, this time in the Italian cities Turin and Milan, forcing one match to be abandoned. RFE/RL reports on the latest ugly turn in the “beautiful game.”

Prague, 14 April 2005 (RFE/RL) -- For Italian soccer, it was supposed to be a night of celebration, with Milan’s two teams completing a historic match-up in the quarterfinals of the Champions League on 12 April.

Instead, it was a nightmare.

The referee called off the match in the 73rd minute after disgruntled Inter fans started throwing a barrage of flaming flares onto the pitch, with one of them hitting AC Milan goalkeeper Dida in the shoulder.

Having already won the first leg and leading this match 1-0, AC Milan had already all but guaranteed their passage to the semifinal. But Ukrainian star Andriy Shevchenko said he and his AC Milan teammates were in no mood to celebrate.

"This isn’t the way to celebrate," he said. "Sure, we should be happy [about winning], but I’m really sad about this. I really didn’t want to see something like this. Unfortunately, there’s not much that we [players] can do. Even for the public who came here today to watch the game, they were just let down by a small group of people who ruined the match.”

UEFA, European soccer’s governing body, is set to announce on tomorrow how it intends to punish Inter Milan.

Inter defender Marco Materazzi, meanwhile, said Italy’s image has taken a blow. That may hurt the country as it prepares to hold the 2008 Winter Olympics in Turin and bids to host the 2012 European soccer championships.

“I feel bad about it. These things shouldn’t happen. Plus, it was an Italian derby and for those who saw this abroad, it wasn’t a very nice thing,” Materazzi said.

Yet it happened again yesterday, albeit on a lesser scale, when fans of English side Liverpool and home team Juventus threw flares at one another ahead of their Champions League tie in Turin. Some noted that it was a sad way to mark the first meeting of the two sides in a high-profile match since 1985, when 39 Italian fans were killed in clashes with Liverpool supporters at the European Cup final in Belgium.

And just four days ago, on 10 April, 85 policemen were injured in clashes with fans in Italy, while Roman supporters of Lazio waved Nazi flags at a game and rival Livorno supporters pelted a train station with rocks.

In September, Swedish referee Anders Frisk was hit in the face by an object thrown by a spectator during a Champions League match in Rome. Frisk called off that game and awarded the visitor, Dinamo Kyiv, a 3-0 victory.

In March, Frisk shocked many by announcing his retirement, saying he had received scores of death threats from fans of English side Chelsea following a controversial call he had made against the team during a Champions League match with Barcelona.

UEFA later punished Chelsea’s Portuguese manager, Jose Mourinho, for bringing the game into disrepute by alleging that Frisk spoke to Barcelona coach Frank Rijkaard at halftime of that match.

In Italy, following a call for “drastic measures” by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who owns AC Milan, the Italian Football Federation today announced a crackdown. It said referees will now have the right to suspend a game as soon as any type of object is thrown onto the field. Clubs blamed for such suspensions will be penalized with a 3-0 loss.

But Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu said that’s not enough. He said clubs and their political sponsors have failed for too long to take measures against violent fans. Such fans traditionally constitute a large percentage of soccer clubs’ ticket sales.

Pisanu’s deputy, Alfredo Mantovano, told reporters in Rome yesterday: “Certain particularly agitated fan groups hold a lot of sway in some quarters in parliament. And everybody must have the strength to resist this type of influence.”

Dida, AC Milan’s injured Brazilian goalkeeper, said yesterday that he hopes the government is serious about cracking down on violence. “We’ve gotten to a point where it’s always a mess [in the stadiums]," he said. "I think all of us [players] agree with him [Interior Minister Pisanu].”

To be sure, Italy is not alone. Violence has recently reared its head in soccer from Slovenia to North Korea and Georgia, raising concern as national teams around the world finish their qualifying for next year’s World Cup in Germany.

Last month, 50 German hooligans were arrested after going on a rampage when their team played a friendly in Slovenia. Meanwhile, Georgian fans in Tbilisi pelted Turkish players with plastic bottles after their team lost 5-2.

And in Pyongyang -- of all places -- North Korean riot police had to step in following Iran’s 2-0 victory. Bottles, stones, and chairs where thrown onto the field and thousands of angry North Koreans reportedly prevented the Iranians from boarding their bus.

In a statement that somehow sounds more credible than similar vows by Italian officials, authorities in Stalinist North Korean vowed guilty fans would be “severely punished.”