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Fans and fanatics

As the World Cup begins, soccer mania brings out Europe's dark side

Fans and fanatics

When we took a German couple to a Milwaukee Brewers game, they were astonished. Not at the hitting and the fielding but at the crowd. "It is so peaceful here," the German mom said. "People have brought their families!"

Professional sporting events are not always that way in Cologne, or much of the rest of Europe. Soccer matches in Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Eastern Europe, and England-and sometimes even in quasi-pacifist lands such as Sweden, Denmark, and Switzerland-are often marred by fans who transform into violent mobs. The

so-called "soccer hooligans" will sometimes vandalize the cities they visit, surge into the stands to fight rival fans, and in a sport they like more than soccer battle the hooligans on the other side with fists, bottles, and clubs.

So authorities are taking extraordinary steps to provide security at the World Cup, soccer's global championship tournament, held from June 9 to July 9. Though most Americans are oblivious to the event, the World Cup is the most popular sporting event in the world. Teams from 32 countries, including the United States, will compete in what is, literally, a world series in the globe's most popular game. And this year the World Cup is being held in Germany-an epicenter of soccer violence-whose 12 host cities will have to deal with more than a million fans from around the world.

European police forces are banding together to try to protect the matches against the twin threat of terrorism and hooliganism, but they worry about the latter the most. Hooligans are organizing themselves over the internet. On one site, a fan wrote, "I appeal to the honor of German hooligans: Go to Dortmund and kick the hell out of those Polish scum." Another fan-clearly confused about the differences between players and fans, sports and war-wrote, "Soon, our armies shall meet to sort out who is number 1 on the international scene." Hooligans are even talking about who will win "The Hoolicup," for fans who can prove to be the toughest and meanest.

Some hooligans have elaborate rules of engagement. Some will not attack "civilians" and will stop the fight when an opponent hits the ground. Poles, though, use weapons, and when an opponent falls to the ground kick him unconscious.

And now another kind of ugliness is showing up at European soccer games: racism. Africans and even some African-Americans have joined a number of European teams. To distract these players, fans from opposing teams often taunt them with racist chants, throw peanuts at them, and make monkey noises, as if blacks were subhuman. Some black players have reported being assaulted.

Such overt racism is taboo in the United States. But not in Europe. A spokesman for an anti-racism group in Germany is recommending that World Cup visitors "with a different skin color" avoid visiting small towns and rural villages in the former East Germany.

Indeed, sports mania is bringing out Europe's dark side. Many hooligans sport Nazi flags. In December, Italian soccer star Paulo di Canio was suspended for greeting fans with the straight-arm Nazi salute. In his defense, he said that he was not supporting racism, just supporting fascism. During the World Cup, neo-Nazis are planning a rally in support of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. German law forbids anti-Semitic and Holocaust-denial demonstrations, but a rally for a terrorist-supporting head of state who believes in such things would be legal.

Though Americans also love sports and get caught up in the group identity of fandom, we tend to be, by cultural inclination, individualists. That inhibits Americans from getting caught up in the psychology of the mob. But sports hooliganism happens here, too, as in the riots and vandalism that often break out after big games.

In the absence of the inner spiritual transformation created through the gospel, civilization is little more than a thin veneer, papering over sin that breaks out at the least provocation.