Examples of Sports’ Social Significance: Liverpool FC Fans Stabbed in Napoli after Europa League 2010 Match, The Soccer War, and Jesse Owens in 1936

As if Liverpool FC and its fans did not have enough to worry about with the controversy involving the team’s sale (eventually sold to New England Sports Ventures), now fans have to worry about a new wave of hooliganism abroad.

According to an article broadcasted early Thursday 21 October 2010 over Britain’s BBC News’s online service, Liverpool FC supporters were allegedly attacked by gangs of Napoli fans through the evening of Wednesday 20 October in separate incidents.  Three Liverpool fans remain in a Napoli hospital recovering from stab wounds and other injuries.  BBC’s correspondent in Rome, Duncan Kennedy, reported that “a father, his two sons, and a friend” were also attacked.  According to the article, the four Liverpool fans were surrounded by 30 to 40 rioters and brutally beaten.  In addition, Alexander Philips (53 years old) and another Liverpool resident (27) who preferred anonymity are also recovering from the attacks.

Napoli police confirmed that a group of extreme Napoli fans called “Ultra” were responsible.  Much like the “hooligans” British authorities claim to have all but eradicated from soccer matches with the help of local law enforcement, the “Ultra” violently confront opposing teams’ fans in public and in the stadium.  “Filippo Bonfiglio, head of DIGOS, the local department which deals with terrorism and political activity,” assured the public that law enforcement personnel would do everything possible to prevent a recurrence.  However, Bonfiglio cautiously emphasized that in a city of 1.5 million, it would be impossible to make any guarantees.

In a related story published earlier this week on BBC News’s online service, another Europa Cup game in Italy was disrupted – and ultimately cancelled partway through the match – when hoards of fans loyal to a Serbian team scaled fences separating fans from the field and threw lit flares onto the pitch.  Political issues in Europe centering on Serbia’s potential membership in the EU and alleged persistent racial tensions in the continent are believed to be major causes of the game’s cancellation.

Sport, in its spontaneous nature, can ignite emotions unlike few other social catalysts.  It is meant to unite, entertain, and inspire; yet, there are groups who use its emotional equity to fuel unrelated agendas and transform rivalries into violence.  Those who feel that sport is socially insignificant need only look at examples like this year’s Europa League championship or even the 100-hour war (the Soccer War, or La Guerra del Futbol, in Spanish) between Honduras and El Salvador in 1969.  Unresolved immigration issues and border disputes between both nations boiled over when riots broke out after a soccer match between the two Central American countries.  Though a cease-fire was secured nearly 100 hours later, a peace treaty was not signed until 1980.

African-American track star and sports legend, Jesse Owens.

As with all of man’s inventions and plans, there are pros and cons – sad stories intertwined with the good.  A clear example of the positive role sports play in society can be found in the history of the 1936 Summer Olympic Games held in Berlin, Germany.  Track legend Jesse Owens, an African-American athlete, shocked Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party by winning four gold medals in the long jump, 4×100 meter relay, 100 meters, and 200 meters at the games hosted in the heart of the so-called “Third Reich.”  Through his success on the field of human endeavor, Owens returned to America an Olympic gold medalist, champion of civil rights, and hero to millions around the world.

Sport is one of society’s most powerful tools.  It can be used to divide… or it can be used to unite.

Cam Suarez-Bitar.

This year’s tournament has been marred by racial and political tensions exacerbated by gangs of hooligans who target opposing teams’ fans.

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