We need to reclaim football

Far-right infiltration is fuelling hatred and violence in the stands. It is time to eradicate it.

Soccer fans detained following violent clashes between AEK Athens and Dinamo Zagreb soccer fans, that lead to the death of a man, are taken to a magistrate, in Athens, Greece, August 11, 2023. REUTERS/Louiza Vradi
Football fans are arrested following violent clashes between Dinamo Zagreb and AEK fans that led to the death of a man, in Athens, on August 11, 2023 [Louiza Vradi/Reuters]

As Spanish fans celebrated their team’s victory over England in the Women’s World Cup final at Stadium Australia in Sydney, TV cameras caught a remarkable moment.

Spanish player Ona Batlle stopped celebrations to comfort her English opponent and FC Barcelona Femení teammate Lucy Bronze.

This act of kindness and empathy was not exceptional. It was rather the culmination of a series of similar events that reflected the positive spirit of the tournament.

In another emotional moment during the group stages, after Jamaica drew with heavyweight Brazil, Jamaican player Khadija Shaw went to Brazilian veteran Marta and hugged her. Shaw told her that she is an inspiration for her and for a lot of young girls in the Caribbean and around the world.

Respect, camaraderie and fair play defined the tournament, which also turned into a venue for the continuing struggle for equal opportunity and diversity in sports.

Two billion people tuned in to watch the Women’s World Cup 2023, almost double its audience of four years ago – giving female footballers yet another argument in their fight for equal pay.

Even the scandal that marred the end of the tournament – triggered by Spanish football president Luis Rubiales forcing a kiss on player Jenni Hermoso – reflected growing solidarity in the struggle against sexism and abuse of power in Spanish football.

The Spanish national team has refused to play until Rubiales resigns; they have been backed by scores of football officials, fans, the Spanish government, and even FIFA, which suspended him for 90 days.

For me and many other fans, the Women’s World Cup elevated football at a time when the ugly, violent side of this sport is increasingly rearing its head, especially in Europe.

On August 7, just two weeks before the World Cup final, the killing of a Greek football fan ahead of a Champions League qualifier shocked us here in Greece. Fans of Croatia’s FC Dinamo Zagreb attacked AEK fans in front of their stadium in Athens. As a result, 29-year-old Michalis Katsouris was fatally stabbed and close to a dozen others injured.

The tragic death reflects a violent subculture in European football, fuelled by far-right ideologies, domestic politics and fan group rivalries. This toxic mix spreads violence and leads to deadly clashes, as local authorities often take action only after tragedies happen.

Of course, violent incidents related to football are not new. Hooliganism has been a steady feature of the sport throughout its history. But in recent years, the far right has increasingly infiltrated fan bases, creating networks of extremist fan organisations and driving violence and hatred in the stands.

The popularity of far-right ideologies has enabled the recruitment of fans by political parties and movements for political mobilisation and the promotion of ultranationalist ideas and historical revisionism.

Dinamo Zagreb’s ultras, known as the Bad Blue Boys, are a case in point. They have embraced far-right ideas, frequently demonstrating them at matches. They have brought repeated punishments upon their team from UEFA over racist and homophobic behaviour in the stands.

The Bad Blue Boys have also not shied away from displaying Nazi symbols and embracing narratives promoted by Croatian far-right groups that seek to rehabilitate the Ustasa fascist movement which ruled Croatia during World War II.

In 2019, they were seen marching through the streets of Milan, making Nazi salutes, ahead of a match between Dinamo Zagreb and AC Milan.

In 2020, during a gathering of the fan group in Zagreb, some members displayed a banner reading “We will f*** Serbian women and children”, which led to their arrests by the Croatian authorities.

This type of behaviour reflects narratives of the Yugoslav wars that are employed by the far right to stir hatred and regional tensions for political gain.

Although within this ultranationalist imagery, Greeks may appear an unlikely foe for Croatian fans, the attack in Athens earlier this month was no coincidence. The infiltration of the far right into European football has added another political layer of confrontation between fan clubs, pitting those perceived as “ultranationalists” against those espousing left-wing ideas.

Many of AEK’s fans are part of the antifascist movement in Greece; this has pitted them against Dinamo Zagreb’s far-right fans. Tensions are further fuelled by the fact that the Bad Blue Boys have grown close to far-right elements within the fan base of AEK’s rival, Panathinaikos.

Greek football has also seen infiltration by far-right groups, especially Golden Dawn. One of its members, Ilias Panagiotaros, who used to be a member of the Mad Boys, a Panathinaikos fan group, became the leader of the far-right ultras known as the Blue Army, which supported the Greek national team in the 2000s. They were aligned with the now-banned Golden Dawn, openly expressing neo-Nazi sentiments and attacking immigrants.

This instrumentalisation of football as a tool in far-right politics and historical revisionism not only fuels deadly violence but also brings hatred, division, and toxicity into the sport. There must be an international effort to eradicate such harmful ideologies from the stands.

In the aftermath of a Greek fan’s death, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis met with UEFA President Aleksander Čeferin and the owners of the four biggest clubs in Greece to discuss measures to deal with organised violence.

UEFA decided to ban all Dinamo Zagreb fans from matches played outside Croatia for the 2023-2024 season, while Greek clubs declared that they would put fan organisations on a tighter leash. Panathinaikos even cancelled their participation in a tournament organised by Dinamo Zagreb in September.

But this is by far not enough. Similar promises about tighter control over extremist fan groups have been made in the past with no results. There needs to be a grassroots effort to eradicate violent ideologies from the stands. Progressive political groups and civil society organisations should join hands and seek to promote tolerance, inclusion and acceptance of differences among fans and fan groups.

The football clubs themselves need to educate and inform the younger generations about the progressive roots of the game and run regular anti-hate campaigns. They should show no tolerance for criminal behaviour, including hate speech, rehabilitation of fascist ideologies or violence.

For decades, football has given hope and joy to the poor, and underprivileged – from refugees, to disabled people, minorities and other marginalised groups. It has provided inclusivity and tolerance, social mobility and egalitarianism. These are the values that we should strive for in football. They should become synonymous with the beautiful game and should be embraced by fan clubs.

The Women’s World Cup demonstrated that this is possible, that football can be about celebrating the sporting spirit, pushing boundaries while respecting opponents, uplifting marginalised people, and promoting unity and diversity over destructive ideologies.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.