Over the weekend we have seen a few interesting developments in an ongoing possible budding “clash of civilizations”, both of which have involved football fans. The first was a ISIS/ISIL suicide bombing of a soccer match in Iskandariya, 40 Kilometers (25 miles) south of Baghdad on 25 March, 2016, that killed 29. Keeping with recent trends, few people heard of this latest ISIS/ISIL atrocity as all eyes are still on Brussels.
In Brussels on Sunday 28 March, 2016 a large group of demonstrators descended on a central square as people paid respects to the victims of last week’s bombings. According to the BBC, “Riot police intervened to try to restore order after the group confronted Muslim women in the crowds, made Nazi salutes and chanted. Apparently one protester described his group as “football hooligans”: “‘We are football hooligans, we don’t have anything to do with politics,’ Andres told AFP. ‘We are here for the victims and to pay our respects.’” While I personally have never heard of a so-called “football hooligan” voluntarily defining himself as one, police commissioner Christian De Coninck confirmed their presence: “We had 340 hooligans from different football clubs who came to Brussels and we knew for sure that they would create some trouble…It was a very difficult police operation because lots of families with kids were here.”
The presence of these far-right “Casuals Against Terrorism” is not something unexpected—indeed some football fan-related sites picked up on this group’s planned protest long before it became international news. Since the migrant crisis began many fans—particularly in Eastern Europe—have made their anti-immigrant sentiments known. What is important to note is that these grassroots protests—led by football fans—do not happen in a vacuum, nor are they unprecedented. In Egypt football fans became a major actor in the “revolution”, just as football fans played a major role in Turkey’s protests back in 2013. Football fans in both Egypt and Turkey—although on a different side of the ideological spectrum than those who appeared in Brussels—joined social protests for the same reason: They believed that their governments were not doing what they promised. In the case of Egypt and Turkey the unfulfilled promise was democracy; in the case of Belgium it seems the unfulfilled promise was, on some level, providing security. Of course the fascistic rhetoric attributed to these football fans (by the media) adds another dimension to the puzzle.
ISIS/ISIL has targeted football matches in both France and Iraq, while unconfirmed threats were made against the Galatasaray-Fenerbahce derby in Istanbul on 20 March 2016 following a deadly ISIS/ISIL bombing in Istanbul. Given this background, one would think that—ostensibly—football fans would be united in their stance against terrorism. Perhaps they are. But, the acts of these individuals in Brussels show that there is still a left/right divide present among football fans. This divide could carry over into the Euro 2016 tournament. While organizers need to be cognizant of external security threats to the tournament in light of recent events, they should also be aware of Turkish and Albanian participation. Given the prevalence of anti-Muslim sentiment in Europe lately, games involving these two majority Muslim countries may become targets for protest from within Europe as well.