Acting Out

Incidents Leave a Few Bruises

EM-fieber. This is the official name for the festivities that took place during the EURO. Beers, cheerful colors, chants and general frenzy are the forecast for Vienna during this tournament.  Most of the estimated 2 million fans and visitors in Austria for the 22 days of the Euro Cup have behaved pretty well, on the whole, reaching the desired expectations from the host government. That is, at least most of the time.

There have been a few incidents, though, in the aftermaths of certain matches. One was Germany vs. Poland. In the Heldenplatz Fan Zone, Julian Rothkopf, a German studying International Relations at Webster Vienna and the Austrian Economics University, was celebrating with friends when a group of aggressive-looking Polish fans tried to set fire to a German flag – while said flag was still attached to the neck of a companion of the Rothkopf. Quickly damping the flames, Rothkopf and his group tried to reason with the group of Poles. Not achieving much through the language barriers, they moved onto another area. Around halftime, Rothkopf left to the bar for drinks. In the meantime, the group of Polish fans came back. One Pole slapped the beer of one of Rothkopf’s companions and the group began to pummel him. Another tried to intervene but was only absorbed into the fight. The result: lots of bruises and a broken jaw.

Incidents such as these, though, have been the exception, according to Austrian Federal Minister of Interior Guenther Platter. “We can attribute this to the mostly peaceful behavior of the wide majority of fans,” he said of the positive review of the security data during the Group Phase matches that ended Jun. 18. He also credited the government’s security strategy for the low number of incidents in this Phase.

This strategy consisted of dispatching a large police force (around 27,000 officers) throughout the country as part of a cooperative security network between the hosts countries, private security companies, the European Police Office (EUROPOL), the International Police (INTERPOL) and relevant institutions of the transport sector. Also, for the first time, police officers wore uniforms of their own countries as part of the cooperation between governments.

This force was in charge of keeping peace during the festivities, controlling the entry and surveillance of “risk-fans” through the use of the “Hooligan Database,” with the names and police records of people who have displayed violent behavior at football matches in the past and could be expected to do so again. This system has been used ever since the 2000 EURO in Belgium and the Netherlands after riots left the Belgian town of Chalderoi in chaos for two days. To identify these “risk-fans,” the information in the Database was available to every police officer in the field as well as to the 170 spotters who mingled with fans, monitoring high risk individuals well before the event begins. In addition, the Viennese Antiriot Police Unit (WEGA) were on stand by throughout the city ready to intervene should a violent situation arise.

Still, just as one cannot credit the low levels of violence to effective police action alone, it would also be wrong to dismiss the incidents as isolated cultural clashes, like those of Poles and Germans. Watching the mood of the crowd, the language barrier was often quite helpful.

Take the Croatians, die-hard supporters of their national team. But while fanatic, they are also considered a peaceful bunch. But one wonders sometimes if it isn’t because the opposing team’s fans simply don’t understand any of them. A good example was the Jun. 20 Quarter Final match between Croatia and Turkey, after the Croats lost in the penalty shootout.

One of the chants we heard repeatedly was, “If I was Turkish, I would kill myself” – which would probably not have gone over well with the bands of inebriated Turks.

However, when the opposing team could understand the chants, in the case of the Germans and Austrians, conflicts and incidents were more likely – as on Jun. 16. That evening, the Austrians were defeated 1-0, thanks to a goal by Michael Ballack.

Afterward, some Austrian fans were heard chanting, “Ballack is a ho-mo-sex-u-al.” A reply to a German ditty that goes, “This is what the Austrians do (while squatting and in a quiet voice), this is what the Germans do (while standing erect, throwing their arms up, jumping and screaming).”

And that night was perhaps the most violent, as there were police interventions in several locations, including Stephansplatz and Judengasse, where 23 people out of the crowd of 500 were detained by the police, according to the official reports on EURO 2008 security. Around 120 WEGA officers intervened to de-escalate tensions and prevent a major riot.

Throughout the Group Phase matches, there were only 470 arrests out of 1,7 million visitors according to official police statistics, so the overall picture was good of international festivities where some disruptions are to be expected, particularly post game among a general fandom lubricated by alcohol and nationalistic feeling.

So while security measures for the EURO 2008 have kept the peace throughout the tournament, the fans are also to be thanked for their overall “peaceful behavior,” perhaps assisted by strategic lack of comprehension across the language barriers.

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