By J Hutcherson (Nov 27, 2018) US Soccer Players - This has turned into a tough week for soccer in two continents. CONMEBOL's Copa Libertadores is still without a champion as the confederation reportedly considers moving the postponed second-leg of the Boca Juniors vs River Plate series out of South America. That's the result of a weekend's worth of violence trying to get the game in at River Plate's Estadio Monumental. UEFA now has its own fan violence issue with what soccer commentators seem required to refer to as "ugly scenes" from the AEK vs Ajax game in the Champions League on Tuesday.
What both incidents have in common is that they're a reminder of a version of supporting soccer teams that isn't supposed to happen anymore. We've moved past overt hooliganism, especially at the highest levels of the game like confederation club tournaments. It's a throwback to the bad old days. The images of a person in a bucket hat lobbing an explosive into the Ajax section at the Olympic Stadium in Athens underlines that. The stance familiar to anybody who has noticed the stickers pasted all over European cities. It's a stereotype from those bad old days since glorified in enough hooligan books that it became a genre.
Frightening scenes as an AEK fan threw a flare into the rival fans' section before their Champions League clash. pic.twitter.com/GEaAc7rKPR— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) November 27, 2018
So here we are when the elite European clubs may or may not be discussing a super league breakaway. When FIFA is talking about a revamped Club World Cup. When the Premier League has so much money the rest of the world charges them more for players because there's no doubt they can afford to pay. When the game has never been worth more. When we're supposed to be past all of that nonsense from the hooligan era, turning the page and moving on towards whatever is next for the soccer business.
Clubs think of themselves as global brands, representing their local areas but also so much more. It's not even the obvious giants of the game. It's smaller clubs in outlying areas without a glittering trophy cabinet. The game is global, and to step back is to risk missing out entirely. The economics matter more than ever, carrying with them more than the results on the field.
That puts the pressure on the authorities, both soccer and government, to act. There's too much at stake. CONMEBOL is talking about revamping the Copa Libertadores in part to show how much value exists in their prestige club competition. It's an open question if they're right. Not being able to finish this year's tournament isn't helping that push for global relevance. Greece has a long list of issues. Now they can add overt hooliganism at a game televised all over the world. The Champions League is UEFA's biggest moneymaker. Now, it's their problem as they try to solve an old issue.
It's also the problem for what soccer was and what it's becoming. There's a way to look at even the extremes of hooliganism as a reminder of a lost authenticity. Read the reporting on the Copa Libertadores final prior to what happened on Saturday. We got the kind of fly-in coverage that let us know we're dealing with the "real" version of the game. The one where fans care the way they used to in the soccer business parts of the world, even if it spills over into regrettable scenes. It's what more than a few people believe European soccer has lost. What Buenos Aires and Athens showed us over the last few days is what that can quickly become.
What we're talking about here are criminal acts. Attacking other people in the name of soccer isn't an excuse. There's no mob exception for acting out in public in and around soccer stadiums. Not in South America, Europe, or anywhere. There's also far less willingness to wait out a response, downplay responsibility, and basically avoid taking action. There's no doubt CONMEBOL and UEFA will act. They have little choice. That they have to, with incidents days apart from each other, borders on the absurd.
In the best case scenario following scenes that show the game at its worst, this is the latest break point. Both South America and Europe can draw another line between then and now. Zero tolerance for criminal acts in the name of soccer, making it clear that there will be no return of the hooligan era. They have no choice, really.
The original hooligan era pushed the game to the margins of society. For all of those who want to claim that it's moved too far in the sanitized direction, that's a better result than groups of people causing public disorder, destroying property, and committing assaults as part of their weekend plans. In other words, hooliganism. We're talking about putting an end to hooliganism in November, 2018 with two examples for why this is clearly necessary. Again.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Logo courtesy of UEFA