Another senseless death in the Balkans

Another senseless death in the Balkans

Greece’s police and UEFA’s rules proved inadequate to prevent a predictable tragedy this week.

This week’s matches should have given Greece’s football authorities quite a headache, with three high-risk fixtures taking place on three days: AEK Athens v Dinamo Zagreb, Panathinaikos v Marseille and Hajduk Split v PAOK Thessaloniki. These seem like run-of-the-mill matchups unless you know that Dinamo’s main fan firm is linked to that of Panathinaikos’, as is AEK’s with Marseille’s. Furthermore, there is little little love lost between Hajduk and PAOK friends Partizan Belgrade. The three Greek sides are also fierce rivals, with a history of violence between their fans. There is little surprise therefore that authorities decided these matches should be played without away fans.

Unfortunately, these potentially violent ties and warnings from Croatian and Montenegrin police weren’t enough to help Greek police prevent around 150 Dinamo hooligans from reaching Athens by car and getting involved in clashes outside AEK’s stadium, leaving one dead and several injured. Intelligence suggests Panathinaikos supporters helped their Dinamo counterparts attack their rivals. The city braced for more violence, as social media users predicted ‘over 1,000’ Marseille fans were due. Greece’s public broadcaster also suggested Livorno’s and St. Pauli’s ultras might also come seek ‘revenge.’

So far, these fears have not materialized. Amid criticism of their inability to prevent the tragedy, Greek police have arrested dozens of Croats (including a few tourists by accident). While details of what led to the death of the AEK fan are still emerging, a joint statement by the Mayors of Athens and Zagreb condemned the violence and called for the punishment of the perpetrators. There’s less unity among AEK and Dinamo, the former wondering how can they play before the Bad Blue Boys next week, the latter accusing their Greek opponents of making the situation worse.

Olympiacos fans were the first ones to back another Balkan team, supporting Crvena Zvezda in a 1992 UEFA Champions League game against rivals Panathinaikos, plausibly due to both teams wearing red and white stripes. In a similar coincidence of stripes and colours, PAOK fans served as Partizan’s home crowd when the latter’s basketball side played on neutral ground against Split in Thessaloniki. According to the Bad Blue Boys themselves, the ‘friendship’ between Dinamo’s and Panathinaikos’ fan firms began in 2010 during a visit to the Fendayn, an ultras group linked to AS Roma. The occasion was presumably a UEFA Europa League tie which the Greeks won 2-3, courtesy of a Djibril Cisse brace. AEK’s links to Marseille predate the others, tracing themselves to a 1989 European Cup tie btween the two sides.

Colours and coincidences only partly explain why hooligans get on cars and buses to drive thousands of kilometres to support someone else’s team or attack their rivals. The Bad Blue Boys are notorious for their far-right politics, giving Nazi salutes and displaying symbols linked to Croatia’s collaborationist World War II regime. On the other hand, AEK’s ultras share their left-wing politics with those of Livorno, Marseille and St. Pauli. A lawyer linked to the Bad Blue Boys cited these politics while arguing that AEK fans are the “largest human scum” after the killing.

This is not the first time hooligans get involved in violence before or during football matches their actual teams aren’t involved with. 41 Crvena Zvezda fans were arrested in 2015 carrying ‘lethal weapons’ on their way to support their favoured Greek side Olympiacos against Dinamo Zagreb. Others made it to Athens and ambushed Dinamo supporters (who had defied another ban on away fans) around town and at the airport, leaving several injured. Nor is this the first time these ‘friendships’ turned deadly, as Zvezda supproters were reportedly among the Olympiacos hooligans that killed a Panathinaikos fan in 2007.

Croatian media suggest that Dinamo will escape punishment as the events took place outside the stadium on a night without actual football. A former match official concluded that Dinamo could not “influence anything” and “bears absolutely no responsibility.” It is likely that UEFA will set the bar equally low in its adjudication of the events, even though its rule book says that “all associations and clubs are liable for […] any other kind of crowd disturbance […] observed inside or around the stadium before, during or after the match”, facing punishment “even if they can prove the absence of any negligence.”

Dinamo, in common with other football clubs around the Balkans, have been quite soft on their fan firm. Despite being routinely punished its fans’ behaviour, there is scant reference to any hooligans facing bans from cheering Dinamo on at their Zagreb home. Panathinaikos put out a brief statement calling us to “stop wishful thinking and find solutions to completely eradicate criminal violent acts.” This display of wishful thinking is unlikely to remove any links between their supporters and violent thugs.

Unfortunately, football clubs and leagues have largely been reluctant to act decisively against extremists within their fan base without the threat of severe punishment. Were Dinamo to possibly face expulsion from Europe, certainly someone would have stopped these dozens of cars from leaving Zagreb. If the current rules don’t allow for a ban on Dinamo over Monday’s events, these rules need changing.

As far as Greece is concerned, this was a worrying performance by its authorities at the site of this year’s UEFA Europa Conference League final, a mere week before the country hosts the UEFA Super Cup in neighbouring Piraeus. Greek clubs must finally crack down on the collusion between their fan firms and violent thugs in other countries. UEFA should make it clear that liability can also extend to matches that clubs are not directly involved in.