Football: Euro 2012 spotlights East European hooliganism
(WARSAW) - Street violence and alleged racism in the stands at Euro 2012 have thrown the spotlight squarely on the interplay between football hooliganism, the far right and organised crime in Eastern Europe.
Even before the start of the first-ever edition of the European championship behind the former Iron Curtain, there were warnings of hooliganism, notably during matches such as Tuesday's fixture between co-hosts Poland and historical rivals Russia.
More than 180 people, mostly Poles, were detained during street brawls in Warsaw, as police used water cannon, tear gas and rubber bullets to bringing marauding fans under control.
Inside the stadiums, meanwhile, Croatian and Russian fans have lit flares, and the latter also beat up stewards, while UEFA is investigating claims that black players have been taunted.
Since the communist bloc crumbled two decades ago, the region's stadiums have proved fertile ground for those who lionise England's once-notorious hooligan "firms" or gangs -- but have taken things to a whole new level.
"An individual can at the same time be in a far-right group, a hooligan group and a drug-dealer group," Serbian security analyst Zoran Dragisic told AFP.
In Poland, police estimates put the hardcord hooligan element at up to 5,000.
While that is a minority of the tens of thousands who attend league matches -- and a drop in the ocean in a nation of 38.2 million -- they still have the potential to sow mayhem.
In reality, Polish hooligans tend to gravitate around clubs, not the national team, explaining why fears of Polish hooligans at the 2006 World Cup in Germany or Euro 2008 in Austria fizzled out.
There was, however, trouble at a 2011 friendly away to Lithuania.
"Real club hooligans aren't interested in Euro 2012," said Warsaw expert Janusz Czapinski.
"If they had gone into action in Warsaw, the 6,000 police officers deployed in the capital wouldn't have been enough and the situation would have been far more serious."
The gangs ally with counterparts in other cities and various league levels to draft muscle for "ustawki" -- pre-arranged brawls with rivals which have claimed lives in the past.
Long accused of doing too little, and mindful of the Euro 2012 spotlight, Polish authorities cracked down after violence marred the May 2011 Cup Final.
A blanket ban on away fans was imposed for all remaining matches that season, with ad hoc sanctions for clubs in the 2011-2012 season -- a broad-brush approach that angered ordinary fans.
Poland has beefed up electronic tagging and slapped stadium bans on some 2,000 individuals.
Fellow Euro 2012 host Ukraine adopted a similar approach, with a list of 1,400 individuals considered dangerous, though some fan groups complained of heavy-handed policing in the run up to the tournament.
Balkan hooligans, meanwhile, have repeatedly made headlines.
Fourteen Partizan Belgrade fans were recently jailed for the September 2009 murder in the Serbian capital of a fan of French club Toulouse who had come for a Europa League match.
Serbia failed to reach Euro 2012 in part because violence halted their qualifier against Italy.
The nation of 7.2 million is home to several thousand hooligans, according to Dragisic.
"The authorities only take cosmetic steps when there's an incident," he said, noting that the crossover to crime syndicates was a growing concern.
"The phenomenon is serious, because hooligans are better and better structured, with an economic bedrock," said Czapinski.
Last month, Poland detained 42 people on suspicion of being part of a drug trafficking and extortion ring, among them the leader of Legia Warsaw's "firm".
In addition, far-right groups have found a ready audience among some fans, though the picture varies.
"The overall hooligan/racism situation in Poland and Ukraine has actually improved," said Rafal Pankowski, who monitors the region for the UEFA-backed Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE) network.
In 2018 World Cup host Russia, 5,000 ultra-nationalists and hooligans clashed with police during a race-tinged riot in Moscow in 2010..
African and Brazilian players there face the kind of banana-throwing long gone from most European stadiums, but official reaction has been slim.
According to Moscow analyst Alexander Verkhovsky, individual Russian hooligans may have far-right ties but supporters' groups as such do not.
In Euro 2012 finalist Croatia, far-right fans were involved in anti-government protests in the capital Zagreb in February 2011, when some 50 people including 32 police officers were injured.
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