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World: Hooliganism Plagues Football Championship

Prague, 24 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Shortly before the World Cup got underway in France two weeks ago (June 10), French police and their counterparts in three other West European nations rounded up more than a hundred suspected militant Islamic fundamentalists considered likely to mount terrorist attacks. Disruption was feared, too, from French airline pilots and other transport workers who threatened long strikes during the month-long soccer tournament. And French authorities, working closely with British police, took steps to prevent known English hooligans, notorious for their soccer-game mischief and violence, from getting close to any of the Cup's 64 matches in 10 separate locales.

With the tournament now at mid-point, it appears that French authorities misjudged where the main threat to the Cup would come from. There have been no terrorist attacks on the games so far and the strikes were swiftly ended by the Government. British hooligans did cause some trouble before and after an English match in Marseilles last week. But many of them, signaled by British police, had been stopped at France's borders before they could enter the country and others were spotted in France and quickly deported.

The biggest problem has come from another direction --Germany, France's eastern neighbor. More than 600 German soccer thugs, many of them skinheads with far-Right sympathies, made their way easily to the northern French city of Lens over the past weekend. After Germany's team played a frustrating tie match with Yugoslavia Sunday night (June 21), they went on a rampage, fighting well-organized street battles with police that left a French policeman near death with severe head injuries.

Scores of German hooligans were arrested in Lens, among them Manfred Warnacke, a 27-year-old owner of a Hanover tattoo and body-piercing shop who witnesses said had beaten the French police officer into a coma. Many of those detained were deported, while several others were quickly tried and sentenced to a year in prison. Since the riot in Lens, tighter security, alcohol restrictions and early bar closings have been announced for upcoming German and English matches deemed as threatening. French policeman Daniel Nivel, a 44-year-old father of two children, remains unconscious with permanent brain damage.

The outcry from officials and the press in both countries, but particularly in Germany, was immediate and strong. Chancellor Helmut Kohl called the incident "a national disgrace" and telephoned President Jacques Chirac to express his regret, while Chirac himself condemned the violence as unacceptable. The head of the German soccer association, Egidius Braun, broke into tears as he told reporters that, in his phrase, "This wasn't hooliganism anymore, it was terrorism." German team coach Berti Vogts said in a statement: "I would have rather lost to Yugoslavia if could have meant saving the policeman from his injuries."

Many commentators asked why the hooligans had not been stopped at the border and sent back to Germany. The "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" said that what it called the "grand words (of officials) only underline how little even a mass police presence can do to stop this phenomenon. "Die Welt" put much of the blame on a lack of coordination among European Union police forces, writing "it almost seems as if there is no EU."

But in fact, analysts pointed out, it was the EU's dismantling of border posts among its continental member states in recent years that made it easy for busloads of hooligans to pass through the now porous Franco-German frontier, despite German police attempts to check some vehicles along the route. Another reason cited was the poor distribution of match tickets by French authorities -- which favored Cup and national officials and sponsors at the expense of ordinary people. There were also many ticket swindles by intermediaries. All this served to force fans out of the stadium and into the streets, as happened in Lens. Many German fans who were victims of a ticket swindle came to the city even though they were not able to get into the match.

Finally, according to some analysts, it was another kind of fundamentalism --decidedly not of the Islamic variety -- that was perhaps most responsible for the incident. The violence of the Lens hooligans, said Berlin commentator Eberhard Seidel-Pielen, sprung from purely European societies." This fundamentalism," he said, "is invariably stamped with racism and Nazism, and is especially relevant for Germany."