Ethiopian Business Review

When the Beautiful Game Turns Ugly

Enjoying live football, in stadiums with fans and friends alike is a popular way of spending leisure time in almost every corner of the world. Sometimes, however, the ‘beautiful game’ takes an ugly turn. Football violence in Ethiopia is creating chaos and unrest during matches, sometimes fuelled by anger at referee decisions, and sometimes for reasons that are unrelated to football. EBR adjunct writer Abiy Wondifraw reports. 

In just in two years working as a sports reporter for Soccer Ethiopia, a popular local football news portal, Tewodros Takele, 23, has seen almost everything. This includes one incident he does not like to remember very often. 

On April 11, 2018, Tewodros was attending a football match between Wolaita Dicha and Hawassa City in Sodo Stadium, in Wolaita zone, in the state of SNNP. The stadium, which was packed with 30,000 spectators for the 19th week premier league match between the two teams turned into a battlefield in the dying minutes of the game. At the 86th minute, the home side scored a second goal which would surely have secured them a badly needed three points. Wolaita fans were celebrating wildly. However, the goal was called off after the linesman ruled that it was offside. Immediately, home side fans started to throw water bottles and rocks onto the pitch, protesting the disallowed goal. Match officials were forced to stop the game for 12 minutes before it could be restarted.

After the final whistle, angry fans started to leave the stadium. “Just after I finished my interview with the coaches, the protest against the referees revived and the fans began to throw rocks all over again. I tried to escape from the area,” Tewodros recalled. “Then the security officers began firing tear gas to disperse the violent fans. I found myself falling on the ground among hundreds of people. I was struggling to breathe. My eyes were burning. I could not understand what was going on. I saw youngsters screaming for help. There was no one to help. Everyone was running. At that point, I was thinking ‘what is the point of all this?’” Tewodros recalls.

Only a day before the Sodo incident, another premier league game between Woldia City and Fasil City was called off in the 89th minute following the home fans’ brutal attack on the referee, linesmen and even Zemariam Woldegiorgis, the coach of their own team, after they swarmed the pitch. Many were also heavily injured and hospitalized due to the incident. 

Globally, football hooliganism, an extremely common, popular occurrence has gone through a range of violent stages since its birth in the 19th Century. Group songs meant to ridicule rival teams eventually grew to crowd violence, which caused serious incidents at football matches in different parts of the world.

Ethiopia is also suffering since foot ball hooliganism transgresses national boundaries. Although violence during football matches is not new in Ethiopia, manifesting as group abuses and insults as well as destroying parts of stadium furniture, football hooliganism has once again gathered steam and has become common practice, in recent years. In fact, the steady increase in the rate of violence by football fans is reaching at alarming stage in a country. 

Mensur Abdulkeni, a renowned football journalist in Addis, prefers to be cautious on the terminologies connected to stadium violence. “We need to separate troublemakers from Hooligans  who are very organized. Usually they have registered members who have some shared values and identity. They have different social and political interests, so that they create violence anytime, anywhere.”

There is no official definition of football hooliganism. However, Ramón Spaaij, professor of sport sociology at University of Amsterdam believes that a distinction should be drawn between spontaneous, relatively isolated incidents of spectator violence and ultras (hooligans). 

Ultras are predominantly a group of football club fans numbering from a handful of fans to hundreds or thousands with larger groups often claiming entire sections of a stadium for themselves. Generally speaking, they are centred on a core group of founders or leaders. Most of the time ultra groups use vocal support and display banners at football stadiums, in order to encourage their own team and intimidate opposing players and supporters. However, they also take extreme actions, occasionally.

 “We are yet to have ultras or hooligans in this country. But there are now  concerning signs in Ethiopian football,” says Mensur. “We are witnessing different groups of violent young fans who usually take a specific section of the stadium. These fans do not have formal groups or membership. They just come from a particular village or area. Later, they walk out of the stadium to show their disruptive behaviour on their way home. At times, they attack vehicles. This leads other regional team fans to respond by creating similar groups. On a positive note, these groupings sometimes take part in social activities. You may find them donating blood.” 

There are, of course, noteworthy resemblances in the stages of development of the problem. In the past, it was common to witness sporadic violence directed mainly at referees and players. This was followed by violence between opposing groups of fans inside the stadium. In recent years, though, it is common to see violence erupting between groups outside the stadium.

“What is even more concerning is that the violence sometimes spills out of the stadium to affect passersby,” says Fikre Simeneh, 40, who was a stadium regular for over 25 years, since he was in primary school. “You might end up among the group being chased by the police out of nowhere. There are attempts of robbery on cars at traffic lights. I advise people to be careful around the stadium when joined by spectators leaving a game,” warns Fikre.   

Football violence has always been the ugly side of the beautiful game. In Ethiopia, although some regional authorities have taken measures such as banning hooligans from entering in stadium and setting such spectators apart, the problem increased with no solution in sight. Football’s unifying factor seems increasingly challenged by the divisive role of stadium troublemakers at the wrong time. 

After the attack on the referee and linesmen during premier league game between Woldia City and Fasil City held in April 2018, the country’s Union of Referees immediately condemned the incident threatening ‘to take its own action [of strikes]’ unless the Ethiopian Football Federation (EFF) imposed the appropriate penalty. EFF acquiesced, levying a heavy fine of ETB150,000 on Woldia City. The team is required to play home games at least 500 kilometres away from Woldia town, where their venue, the Mohammed Hussien Ali Alamoudi Stadium, is located, for three consecutive games. 

EFF has imposed close to a million birr in fines on different teams, including Woldiya, in just one month. Following stadium violence that left a few spectators injured last February, the Federation slapped St. George Football Club with penalties of ETB180,000 and playing one home match in an empty stadium. The other conflict between Wolwalo Adigrat University and Mekele City fans forced EFF to charge both clubs, last April, to pay ETB160,000 in total. Wolaita Dicha was also ordered to pay ETB 100,000 for the violence in Sodo stadium when they hosted Hawssa city. 

Club officials complain that the Federation is busy collecting penalty fees without making sensible moves to address the source of ever growing violence. “We are experiencing high level stadium violence everywhere and almost every week. The violence got worse in the last two seasons,” says a club official, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the issue. “Now we have more clubs from the states of Amhara, Oromia, Tigrai and SNNP. You can never pretend every game is just a game anymore. It is becoming something else. You cannot leave it to EFF. They always have one answer for all the different problems. Punishing clubs for strangers’ unlawful acts in the stadium is unfair and irrelevant.”

According to the Federation president, Junedie Basha, his administration is not just punishing the clubs. “Along with the penalty, we order them to sensitize their fans to respect opponents, and to accept the football results and referee decisions. We understand the stadium violence is not just a football issue. The media steer clear of reporting the clear political intent by some groups. We admit it is beyond football matter. So we are working with regional and federal security bodies.”


6th Year . May 16  - June 15 2018 . No.61


 

 

Abiy Wendifraw

Special Contributor

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