BRUSSELS — The first world cup of the new millennium is to be staged in Japan and South Korea in the summer of 2002. Both countries want to use this billion-dollar sporting showpiece as a global shop window allowing those watching, both in the stadiums and on TV, to see the real Japan and the real South Korea. This is a laudable aim that can easily turn sour. The thrills, drama and excitement need to be restricted to the pitch rather than the streets around the stadium or the local bars.

After all, this was the same dream held by those hosting the World Cup in France in 1998 and Euro 2000 in Belgium and the Netherlands. These were shattered by disruption and violence on a scale that was not fully anticipated, with hundreds of hooligans, fueled by drink, acting out their xenophobia on the streets of Europe’s soccer venues. They do it to parade and assert their national identity, and are often underpinned among the hard core by membership or, at least, inchoate support for, extreme-right and neofascist politics. They also do it because when abroad they can all too often get away with it. They are merely returned home rather than sent to jail.

In Marseilles, pitched battles between English fans and the local Tunisian population went on well into the night with the police helpless to do much. German fans ambushed and attacked a policeman with iron bars, leaving him brain damaged and permanently disabled.

Similar events took place in Charleroi during Euro 2000 when German and English thugs did enormous damage to property and people in the wake of appalling drunken violence that terrorized locals and tourists. It escalated to a level where England was threatened with eviction from the tournament.

More people remember the violence than France’s graceful victory. This year, two Leeds United fans were stabbed to death in Istanbul and as a result when Galatasaray, the team involved, played another English team, Arsenal, in Copenhagen, there were running street battles between the two sets of fans. Italy and Spain have had their own problems too.

All of this has taken place despite intensive policing inside and outside the grounds, and extensive collaboration between the authorities around Europe in an attempt to ensure public order. For example, in Britain, the National Criminal Intelligence Service established a special Football Intelligence Service to provide information on known soccer hooligans to the Dutch and Belgium police. Jack Straw, the British home secretary, held a Europe-wide meeting of police and Home Office officials to agree common approaches and pool resources. The European Parliament demanded that Europol, the European Police Liaison Office in The Hague, include in its remit not only drugs trafficking and terrorism, but racism and soccer violence.

Neither the soccer authorities nor the police in Japan and Korea have as yet begun to address the public-order problem. They apparently think it’s a European phenomena that cannot happen over here. They are wrong. Soccer hooliganism — an international and often organized crime — needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency by the authorities before it’s too late.

In Japan, in particular, media interest has centered around the problems in the building of stadiums and facilities, rather than the very real issue of hooliganism. This seems to be because there is an assumption that few European fans will travel to East Asia for the matches. This is mistaken. Soccer fans will devote enormous proportions of their income to following their teams. Many of them have good professional jobs. The leader of the neofascist Cheltenham Volunteer Force arrested after the riot at an Ireland vs. England match that forced the game to be abandoned, owned his own company.

Twelve months ago in Tokyo at the Toyota Cup match between Palmeiras and Manchester United, there were enough British fans present to bemuse the rest of the crowd with their chants of, “If you are a City fan surrender or you’ll die” in reference to their local Manchester City rivals. And this was a comparatively meaningless match.

What is to be done? First, fans need to be segregated at matches. All this requires is the intelligent use of modern computer technology. Second, there has to be consideration of alcohol bans on match days in the cities where matches are to be played. Third, it must be made clear that those arrested will not merely be deported, but will face the full consequences of their actions in the Japanese and South Korean courts. Fourth, a joint task-force should be set up that will seek the collaboration of soccer and judicial authorities around the world to exchange information and insure that undesirable visitors do not make it past immigration, let alone into the grounds. Then 2002 can pass off smoothly. The 99 percent of genuine fans can enjoy the spectacle, and we can wonder if it was really necessary, knowing that the costs of prevention paled in significance compared to the financial and political consequences of a repeat of the events at the 1998 and 2000 tournaments.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.