The ugly side of the beautiful game

Soccer is growing in the United States with recent World Cup successes of both the men’s and women’s teams, but there’s a side to soccer that Americans do not emulate in sport. In Europe, big soccer rivalries have brought out the worst in fans as matches have become the scenes of racial and political violence, showing a connection between the actions of fans and the broader societal tensions occurring in their society.

The city of Glasgow, Scotland, serves as a home to the two giants of the Scottish Professional Football League: Celtic and Rangers. The rivalry between these two teams is known as “The Old Firm,” a feud which transcends the normal heated sporting match. Celtic is affiliated with pro-Irish, Catholic and left-wing ideals. Rangers are associated with anti-Irish, Protestant and right-wing views. Conflicts between fans reached a peak in the Scottish Cup final in 1980, when a Celtic 1-0 victory over Rangers turned into an all-out brawl with supporters using bricks, metal poles, bottles and wooden planks to attack each other. The Scottish clubs have been successful in preventing violence on the field, but the off-field conflicts still exist. 

Also in 2012, a U21 match between Serbia and England ended in violence when Serbian fans racially abused black English players on the pitch. After a ball was kicked at Serbian fans, it became a scramble for England’s players to get off the pitch safely as they were punched, kicked and hit with chairs by Serbian supporters.

How does sport become riot? Why do these incidents of racial tension occur outside the United States, but do not come to fruition domestically? Soccer isn’t just a game, it’s a medium of expression, according to Andres Parra, UT international student and sophomore studying biochemistry.

“It’s something Americans will never get,” Parra said. “Soccer is a form of expression, not just a sport. Off-field issues are bound to work their way onto the pitch. It is how it’s always been.” 

While Americans hold soccer in a subjacent cultural regard to that of the rest of the world, sport in the United States does find itself the stage of social tensions on occasion. In the 2014 NBA playoffs, the Los Angeles Clippers wore shooting jerseys inside out to protest the owner Donald Sterling after he was recorded making derogatory racial comments towards African-Americans. Not to mention the stories of Jackie Robinson. 

However, these cases never erupted into the levels of violence on the soccer stage. That’s because the United States has a different sports system, says Thomas Hunt, associate professor and UT Assistant Director for Academic Affairs for Physical Culture and Sports. “Europe has clubs which are based more off of an identity; American sports are more based off of location and division.” 

That’s not to say sports in the United States aren’t as passionate, but there is less of a personal affiliation to teams. UT football games are rowdy, but the chance of a massive fan brawl this year is slim at best.

Louis Milich is a psychology sophomore.