The Georgetown-Chinese Army basketball brawl is pretty tame compared to these five geopolitical ballgames that spilled over into off-field violence.
- By Joshua E. KeatingJoshua E. Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy.
Update: On Feb. 1, 2012, more than 70 people were killed in fighting between rival groups of soccer fans during a match in Port Said, Egypt. Organized Egyptian hooligan groups, known as Ultras, were heavily ivolved in the demonstrations against Hosni Mubarak’s regime, clashing with police and often turning peaceful demonstrations violent.
In August, 2011, FP looked back at some of the notable occasions when political violence has spilled over onto athletic playing fields.
The Blood in the Water Game
Water polo, a wildly popular sport throughout Eastern Europe, is already a pretty rough game. Throw in a bitter Cold War rivalry and you have the makings of a literal bloodbath.
The 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia, took place just days after Soviet forces invaded Hungary to brutally suppress an anti-communist revolution. Several European countries boycotted the games to protest the Soviets’ actions. Things came to a head in a semifinal water polo match between Hungary and the Soviet Union, which turned into one of the roughest games in Olympic history.
Players were expelled throughout the game for illegal headlocks, holds, and punches. Late in the match, star Hungarian forward Ervin Zador was sucker-punched by the Soviet player guarding him and was pulled from the pool with a bleeding cut below his eye. Australian police were called in to prevent the heavily pro-Hungarian crowd from rioting.
The Hungarians won the game 4-0 and went on to defeat Yugoslavia for the gold medal. But nearly half of the country’s 100-member Olympic delegation defected rather than return home to communism.
The Football War
The 1969 conflict between Honduras and El Salvador, made famous by Ryszard Kapuscinski’s book, The Soccer War, had its roots in conditions that existed long before the two countries took the field for a fateful series of World Cup qualifying matches in June of that year.
After decades of heavy immigration, Salvadorans accounted for about 20 percent of Honduras’ peasant population by 1967. Spurred by local resentment, the Honduran government passed a land reform law displacing thousands of Salvadorans.
With tensions high, the two countries met for the first match in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras. The night before, Honduran fans had surrounded the hotel where the Salvadoran players were staying, keeping them awake throwing stones and firecrackers. El Salvador lost the game 1-0, prompting the suicide of a young Salvadoran fan. Her funeral became a national event, attended by the president.
At the return match, held one week later in El Salvador, the home fans’ rage was so intense that Honduran players had to be taken to the stadium in armored cars. Instead of a Honduran flag, the Salvadorans raised a dirty dish towel on the flagpole. The home team won that one 3-0. A tiebreaker was held in Mexico City with both countries’ fans separated by 5,000 baton-wielding Mexican police. El Salvador won the game 3-2, and hours later severed diplomatic relations with Honduras. Two weeks later, Salvadoran planes began bombing Tegucigalpa. The war ended four days later with a ceasefire arranged by the Organization of American States.
The Old Firm
One of the world’s bitterest sports rivalries, known collectively as the "Old Firm" because of the cash raked in by the team’s owners thanks to the rabid enmity of their fans, involves the two biggest Scottish soccer clubs, Celtic and Rangers. Of course, the rivalry is much bigger than football, or even Scotland for that matter. Celtic supporters tend to be Irish Catholics while Rangers are supported by Protestants — making the regular meetings between the two teams a kind of proxy battle for the Northern Ireland conflict. Irish tri-colors and British Union Jacks are far more common at Old Firm games than Scottish flags.
Violence has been a part of the rivalry since at least 1909, when fans, upset that a replay match had ended in a draw, proceeded to tear seats from the stadium and set turnstile booths on fire. In 1980, following a Scottish Cup final won 1-0 by Celtic, both sides’ fans met on the pitch and began a massive brawl that had to be broken up by police on horseback. The fight led to the banning of alcohol at Scottish soccer matches.
In an infamous 1999 game, fans threw projectiles at players and invaded the field following a controversial foul call. Some have accused the teams’ owners of pandering to the most violent elements of their fan base to generate controversy and interest.
Dinamo Zagreb-Red Star Belgrade Riot
Two weeks before this Yugoslav league match on May 13, 1990, Croatia had held its first-ever democratic elections, which were swept by pro-independence parties. Both clubs were supported by notoriously violent hooligan groups — Belgrade’s Delije and Zagreb’s Bad Blue Boys — and when they met for this match in Zagreb, both sides began brawling and tearing out seats in the stadium with little interference from Yugoslav police. The brawl soon spilled out onto the field, where, in the most famous image of the day, Dinamo Captain Zvonimir Boban karate-kicked a policeman who he saw attacking a Croatian fan.
One year later, the Yugoslav football league — along with the rest of the country — was no more. The Delije and Bad Blue Boys members went to play prominent roles in their countries’ armies and paramilitary groups during the civil war that followed. Delije-leader-turned-warlord Željko Ražnatovic — better known as "Arkan" — was indicted by the United Nations for war crimes but assassinated in 2000 before he could stand trial.
A plaque outside Zagreb’s Maksimir stadium today reads, "To the fans of the club, who started the war with Serbia at this ground on May 13, 1990."
The Arab Winter
Almost exactly one year before the demonstrations that would lead to the downfall of Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship, young Egyptians took to the streets for a different reason — a simmering football rivalry with rival North African power Algeria. When the Algerian national team arrived in Cairo on Nov. 12, 2009, for a World Cup qualifying match, its bus was attacked by Egyptian fans and several players were bloodied.
Rioting followed the first game, which was won by Egypt, and inaccurate media reports that Algerian fans had been killed in the melee sparked attacks against Egyptian business in Algeria. After the second match was won by Algeria, a tiebreaker was held in Khartoum, Sudan, attended by the sons of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Algeria won the game 1-0 and Egyptian fans were reportedly attacked on the way to the airport. Responding to the incident, Egypt briefly withdrew its ambassador from Algeria.
At the time, Ursula Lindsey wrote in Foreign Policy that "the soccer frenzy may have served the interests of both autocratic regimes, whose populations might otherwise be striking over living conditions or demonstrating for greater political freedom." One year later, they would be.