EURO 2012: Crowd violence

Zarko Sesum, victim of his own 'fans', recovering in hospital instead of playing in the final

Whenever one discusses disturbances and violence in a large crowd, one has to take care not to accuse and judge everyone in the crowd. Typically, only a small proportion is responsible. But, of course, one can be justified in wondering why so rarely those who are innocent and abhor the violence do so very little to try to prevent or at least to report the guilty ones and get them punished.

Often the problems among a group of fanatic sports spectators reflect more general trends in the society as a whole. When the notion of ‘hooligans’ began in English football, it could easily be traced to the desperation and unrest among the participants also in their lives away from football. In many instances, politics and religion enter into the picture. Rivalries between specific clubs often take violent forms. And not surprisingly, a history of previous wars and civil strife will then often live on in the area of sports. So it is not strange if the Balkans becomes a notorious region, although it may require some explanation as to why specifically the Serbs have done so much to deserve the worst reputation.

Without getting too far off track, one can remember the violence from Serbian fans that caused a European qualification game in football between Italy and Serbia to be abandoned in 2010. And there was even an incident in the Australian Open in tennis in 2009, in connection with a match between Novak Djokovic from Serbia and a Bosnian-born player representing the U.S. It is also hard to remember any football game between bitter Belgrade rivals Partizan and Crvena Zvezda (Red Star) that has not deteriorated into a serious battle in and around the stadium. But the worst situations tend to arise in connection with Serbian-Croatian encounters.

I have seen, and even supervised, many of those battles over the years in international handball, for instance in strange locations such as Ismailia, Egypt, where not many team supporters had found their way. So there the atmosphere was as peaceful in the stands as on the court. In last year’s World Championship in Sweden, the authorities had to put on special security measures to keep the Serbian and the Croatian supporters separated. But the frustrating aspect is that the crowds are not able to observe and follow the example of the players, who typically go out of the way to maintain respect for each other on the court, also in a physical and intense match where a lot is at stake.

Already prior to the semifinal game in EURO 2012, there had been serious events involving Serbian hooligans smashing cars and beating up Croatians who were traveling peacefully from a match in Novi Sad towards the Croatian border. And severe beatings in the streets of Belgrade were also reported, although in some instances it was suggested that Croatian provocations played a role. So the Serbian police clearly knew what they were doing, when they already prior to EURO 2012 announced strict security measures for the spectators. Not just were fireworks, trumpets, whistles, flags and banners on posts prohibited; the same held true for perfume and deodorant containers, cigarette lighters, plastic bottles and coins. This caused surprised reactions from ignorant visitors.

But prohibition is one thing and enforcement is another. The presence of 5.000 police among 20.000 spectators did not help. During the Serbia-Croatia semifinal an object was thrown, with the apparent target of either the Croatian coach or the star player Ivano Balic. It still remains disputed what the precise object was, but perhaps it was ‘simply’ a coin. Nevertheless, instead of hitting a Croatian, it happened to hit one of Serbia’s own key players, Zarko Sesum, in the eye. He started bleeding profusely and had to be taken to hospital on an emergency basis. Initial reports even suggested that he might risk losing his sight on that eye. And his participation in the final was of course ruled out. It is ironic that Sesum’s club team is Rhein-Neckar Loewen in Germany, i.e., precisely the club of Karol Bielecki, who did lose his eye-sight in a game, although through a pure accident and not as the result of fan violence.

After the final, which Serbia lost against Denmark, the Serblan player Vuckovic expressed his frustration: “The stupidity of the person who threw the object may have been what cost us the gold medals, as it kept Sesum out of the game”. I am sure it would be too naïve and optimistic to think that this kind of result may have much of an impact in making the hooligans think and put a stop to the dangerous behavior. As I said at the beginning, it is too deeply rooted in what goes on in the society at large. One only wonders why the Serbian population tolerates this kind of situation, where inevitably all of them get to be perceived and judged as being afflicted by the same mentality as the hooligans!?