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The unruly crowd

This is war, and not minus the shooting



THE IRONY OF IT ALL. . .  Al-Ahly's players warm up as pigeons are freed as a peace offering ahead of their match against Al-Masry in Port Said. More than 74 people were killed following violence and a stampede after the game

This is not football, this is war, " the BBC reported as we saw one of the players on our TV screen fleeing for cover in the pitch invasion during an Egyptian derby. The incident made headlines the world over because of the death toll. "They are winning 3-1 and still they want to kill the players and the fans, " expressed a professional player-turnedagent, also interviewed for the Western news. He explained this was a very important match, because of the history of both teams.

These details hardly seem relevant as gruesome facts emerge regarding the deaths. Some were stabbed;some were stampeded upon when trying to escape.

The task of trying to make sense of any of this is impossible by nature. On the one hand, there are those seeking to tie it into the current post-revolution climate in Egypt. Within the country, the police, army and security forces have fingers pointed at them. In London, the BBC wants to know if the connection between football and politics is not just an Egyptian phenomenon but also something we have heard about from Argentina too, for example, in the past.

This is not a football story. And nothing about it is peculiar to Egypt. Crowd behaviour - as Londonders know fully well following the summer riots - is unpredictable and a challenge for policing. Football reflects social issues. Angry young men may find stadia a good conductor for certain behaviour, but they will not deter from externalising their frustrations if stadia are made more secure, or if their access is limited, curbed or denied in any way. As England has learnt, it is perfectly possible to shift the organized thuggery to the shopping mall.

Egypt, of course, has to ask questions of its methodology: many people captured by cameras were carrying batons. Shootings happened, therefore some guns must have also been in the stadium. Response by the emergency services is crucial, and if people are trapped in narrow exits that is a valid issue for engineers and designers to probe.

But the overriding mourning that must take place - not just in Egypt but in the football community as a whole - is for the lives lost in a senseless confrontation, validated by the "us and them" concept which football not just accepts and condones, but almost always positively encourages.

We can no longer deem these hostile manifestations of enmity as quirky, colourful, or part and parcel of the spectacle. Every one of us who has ever glamourised the thrill of being among the wild mob, or encouraged our children to chant hatred for the traditional rivals of our club, must accept we were wrong.

For so long football has gotten away with tolerating that which the rest of society frowns upon. The escape from reality, the 90 minutes of pure joy, the range of emotional responses motivated by the artists on the pitch providing a necessary respite from the harsh mundane existence of 'real' life is all very well, but an entire shift in the culture of 'support' is clearly needed.

The Turkish FA had a huge impact a few months ago when instead of the usual ban on all spectators - 'play behind closed-door' policies are very common when FAs run out of ideas for tackling unruly crowds - they stipulated that only women and children under 12 were to be allowed to a particular game.

As a result, 41, 000 women and children filled the Sukru Saracoglu Stadium and watched Fenerbahce play against Manisapor. What had been thought out as "punishment for several incidents of crowd disturbance and supporter dickhead-ery" - as the site whoateallthepies. tv so eloquently put it - turned in fact into a brilliant public relations exercise and a great experience for those children. Even the players said they particularly enjoyed the policy.

It can be done. Violent outbursts cannot be eradicated from society by decree. But football can tap into the good and the beautiful. In Argentina, for example, for almost thirty years all the supporters of every stadium in the country, organized by the same "tough gangs" or Barra Bravas who are so feared generally, observe a two-minute silence on April 2 as a sign of respect for those who lost their lives in the Malvinas/Falklands conflict in the early 1980s. Without fail, they all respect this.

Following the teachings of Gandhi, I would propose that all over the world football supporters from every club dress in the colours of their most bitter adversary and chant songs of praise for the team they most dislike following the Egyptian football tragedy this week. If this could be spread, from one super derby to the next everywhere, we could save football.

The show could thus be returned to its rightful place - a game to be marvelled at - and the crowds could spend 90 minutes lost in frenzied excitement, for the opposing team.

Most diehard fans will probably miss a heartbeat at the thought, but that's because we have grown so used to believing that it is somehow okay to burden this magical game with vitriolic nonsense. It is not okay.

The Egyptian players are contemplating retirement, and that's because they witnessed a horror which is simply unacceptable in a civil society. That player quoted by the BBC was right: "This is not football. It's war".

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