The Ugly Side Of The 'Beautiful Game'

Warming up on the touchline, a black player jogs toward fans at the Parc des Princes soccer stadium. As he gets closer, a barrage of monkey chants explodes, "OOOH! OOOH! OOOH!" and racist insults fill the air.

Such scenes are increasingly common at the home stadium of Paris Saint-Germain, or PSG, one of France's top soccer teams, and are finding racist expression in elite soccer leagues across Europe, raising fears that a global sport that calls itself "the Beautiful Game" is getting uglier.

Many of the fans yelling insults are members of hooligan gangs that prowl the stadium grounds on match day, looking for a rumble with black and Arab members of a multiethnic rival gang.

Yet interviews with gang members and repeated visits to PSG games found that racist hooligans operate openly and with almost total impunity at the 43,000-seat ground on the western outskirts of the French capital.

Soccer, with its many black stars, ought to be a showcase of multiracial harmony, especially in France, which draws heavily on talent from its former African colonies.

Instead, the brawling soccer fans have emerged as the extreme fringe of a deeply troubled France, one that is grappling with stiffening resistance to immigration, protests linked to youth unemployment and the perceived threat of globalization.

Now, after the riots that engulfed immigrant-filled French suburbs last fall, beer-fueled racism in soccer has taken on an even more menacing tinge.

Unlike soccer hooliganism elsewhere, in which the antagonists are fans of rival teams, the clashes outside Parc des Princes are largely between fans rooting for the same team, PSG.

On the bleachers of Parc des Princes, PSG supporters divide along racial lines in two opposing sections of stands, the Kop of Boulogne behind one goal and the Tribune d'Auteuil behind the other.

Boulogne is nearly entirely Caucasian; Auteuil is multiracial and includes whites.

Two all-white groups, the Independents and the Casual Firm, have fought with increasing ferocity in recent months with multiracial Tigris Mystic. (The English-language names reflect the influence English soccer hooliganism has had over Europe.)

The race issue comes out clearly in interviews with gang members on both sides, none of whom agree to be identified by name because they have records and fear more trouble with police.

One leading member of the Independents, dressed in a designer overcoat and proudly showing off a finger that got bent out of shape in a fan skirmish, said his gang was out to rid the suburbs of blacks and Arabs.

A high-ranking Tigris Mystic man said his group is fighting back against such "fascist" views.

"We've had enough of being knocked around," said the 23-year-old man of North African descent.

Tigris Mystic is based in the Paris suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis, one of the centers of last fall's riots. Casual Firm hooligans wielding iron bars vandalized its headquarters in October, just days before the violence broke out.

On Feb. 25 Tigris Mystic members, some allegedly armed with machetes and nail-studded planks of wood, ambushed 20 Independents at a highway gas station on their way back from a match. Five people were injured.

PSG, where black players George Weah of Liberia and Ronaldinho of Brazil once displayed their magic, is not alone in suffering from racist outrages.

In Spain, Barcelona's Cameroon striker Samuel Eto'o threatened to walk off the field after Zaragoza fans subjected him to monkey chants in February. In Italy, right-wing fans have displayed Nazi and fascist symbols and anti-Semitic banners at Rome's Stadio Olimpico.

But some black players say the atmosphere at Parc des Princes is becoming intolerable.

"I'd have to think twice before setting foot there again," Senegal-born Patrick Vieira, a midfielder for the French national team, told The Associated Press.

During one match, a fan yelled at PSG midfielder Vikash Dhorasoo, a France international midfielder of Indian origin, "go sell peanuts in the metro." It was only the least offensive shout in a tirade of vulgar epithets for blacks.

PSG insists that racists are a minority among its fans and that its powers to combat them are limited, even with 102 cameras inside its stadium.

"Understand one thing: PSG has no police authority or lawmaking power," the club's director of communications, Jean-Philippe d'Halliville, said in an interview. "You can't ask PSG to arrest and judge people. Things don't work that way in France."

Yet former hooligans have been hired as stadium ushers, and at a recent match, some of them were on first-name terms with known troublemakers and were letting them in without tickets or a search.

When told of this, D'Halliville appeared surprised and said only that he would "make some calls." However, he did not condemn the presence of former hooligans acting as ushers.

"Even if there are former hooligans who work in the security services, are you not allowed a second chance?" he said. "Should they bear a cross all their lives?"

"That's just passing the buck," said Piara Power, director of the British-based Kick It Out anti-racism campaign. "Denial is a big thing among football administrators. Unfortunately turning the other cheek is easier."

Ushers did just that before a PSG game against Sochaux on Jan. 4. Two Arab youths were punched and kicked by white fans outside the entrance to the Kop de Boulogne. Ushers, all white, stood chatting and did not intervene.

Interior Minister and presidential hopeful Nicolas Sarkozy has promised to rid PSG of troublesome fans. He wants them banned from matches and championed anti-terrorism legislation that will boost video surveillance in sports grounds.

On March 7, a Paris court convicted three PSG supporters of unfurling a racist banner at a February 2005 match held in support of an anti-racism campaign.

The court banned the supporters from the stadium for three years, ordering them to report to police during matches, and fined them up to $1,200.

But these are minor successes. And now a fresh cloud looms — this summer's World Cup tournament in Germany, the pinnacle of the soccer world, which many fear will be a magnet for hooligans.

  • Editor's note: Over a period of 14 months, Jerome Pugmire interviewed team officials as well as known hooligans, some of whom he accompanied to soccer matches, as he investigated the inside world of soccer violence.