Tightened soccer security has hooligans in retreat

January 29, 1995|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,London Bureau of The Sun

LONDON -- This is not like going to the Super Bowl. It's more like a trip into a war zone.

On a wet winter night, the neighborhood by Highbury Stadium crackles with tension as Millwall, the dreaded soccer rival from south of the Thames River, meets its northern opponent, Arsenal.

Police show up with dogs and riot gear. Cameras focus on spectators, not players. Every Millwall fan -- toddler or grandmother -- is frisked and seated behind the south goal.

And then, 15 minutes before the start of the match, there is this:

Seventy men -- surrounded by a dozen mounted police, 20 patrolmen and five police vans -- are marched like prisoners through the crowd. There is pandemonium as a horse roughly the size of a baby elephant nearly stomps a child. Arsenal fans begin cursing. One man is arrested, while others are searched and seated. The entire scene is videotaped by a London policeman.

Millwall's hooligans have arrived, and like the rest of their kind these days, the cops have them on a very tight leash.

Britain's soccer hooligans, the scourge of European sports during the 1980s, are in retreat. They have been confronted by an array of high-tech surveillance equipment, police intelligence, toughened laws and improved safety features at the country's stadiums.

And they are also confronted by one tough cop, Peter Chapman, a no-nonsense north Englishman who heads the National Criminal Intelligence football unit.

"Hooligans bring shame on the country," Mr. Chapman says, his voice rising in indignation. "When I travel abroad, the one thing that makes me ashamed is the behavior of my fellow countrymen in other places. Football is only a game -- it's not a religion."

In the 1980s, Britain's hooligans turned a game of beauty into a dance with death.

Before the 1985 European Cup final between Liverpool and Juventus of Italy at Heysel Stadium in Brussels, a riot left 39 dead and 600 injured.

Four years later, Nottingham Forest met Liverpool in the Football Association Cup semifinal at Hillsborough Stadium.

All the disgusting elements of English soccer -- the hooligans, the dungeon-like stadiums, the greedy clubs, the ill-prepared policing -- converged in one horrifying incident. Fans, herded like cattle into standing-room-only terraces, wedged against fences that would not topple, crushed one another.

Ninety-five people died to see a soccer game.

Something had to change. And it has.

Soccer safer, more lucrative

Soccer in England is safer and more lucrative than ever. Now, the game's problems are self-inflicted, from kickback scandals involving coaches, to a star player's confession of drug abuse, to a star goalkeeper deflecting bribery allegations.

Last week it was a player, Eric Cantona of Manchester United, who acted violently enough against a spectator to get his own career suspended. The French-born striker landed a kung-fu-like kick to the chest of a spectator who had taunted him mercilessly.

But those are the exceptions.

Soccer these days has transformed itself into big business, where a player like Manchester United's Andy Cole can be bought for $11 million. There is no room for brawling when a buck can be made. The stadiums are polished. The ticket prices have been boosted.

Most important, the game-day security has been made so tight, it is positively Orwellian.

They don't just have soccer matches in this country, they mount full-press intelligence operations, overseen by Mr. Chapman's unit, which has its headquarters down the hallway from the Interpol office in London.

Mr. Chapman knows all too well the havoc that unruly fans can cause. He witnessed the horror of Hillsborough.

On a tour of his office, he points out a glass case, filled with the weapons of the hooligan trade: knives, brass knuckles, flare guns and pepper spray.

Who's who of hooligans

In a video control room, Mr. Chapman and his staff are able to pull up videotapes of every game played in England's top two divisions. They aren't looking for spectacular plays -- they are looking for fights.

A computer database holds 6,000 names and faces, a who's who of hooligans banned from stadiums or arrested for fighting.

"We are dealing with people who travel the length and breadth of this country," Mr. Chapman said. "It's imperative we have images of these fans."

And intelligence.

Nearly all the 92 professional soccer teams in Britain still have their hard-core hooligan element, fans who love the game and love to fight. It's about turf, about geographical rivalries and about macho posturing. It's about stuff as trivial as drinking in a pub in the other team's back yard. And it's about something as serious as assault.

Abroad, patriotism sets in. The British Empire may be dead, but British hooligans can match up against the Germans, the Dutch and the Italians on a soccer field.

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