An episode of hooligan violence, with a 22-year-old man dying from multiple stab wounds took place in Athens, Greece, the night before Tuesday’s UEFA Champions League qualifying soccer match between teams AEK (Greece) and visiting Dinamo Zagreb (Croatia). Additionally to one man violently losing his life, there are 8 people injured (Croatian and Greek) and the clashes were especially violent.
The news media have described Monday night in Athens as a “night of mayhem”, reporting: “Large groups of supporters attacked one another near the stadium, throwing stun grenades, stones, incendiary devices and other objects. Some had bats.” Shops and cars were also reported to have been damaged, and around 100 suspects have been arrested by Greek police authorities.
As research is still being carried out about the actual conditions that have allowed this violence to happen, there are some lessons to be learned from a security perspective.
1 Information is important as long as it is used promptly and properly
An inquiry is taking place about how Greek Police failed to stop Croatian ultras despite a ban on Dinamo fans from attending their team’s game. As it has been reported: “the Greek police’s Subdirectorate of Managing Violence in Sports Areas had notified police headquarters with three documents, conveying information by Croatia’s Security and Intelligence Agency that nearly 100 fans of Dinamo Zagreb were planning to travel to Greece and be hosted by fans of a Greek football team or stay at Airbnb rentals. The Croatian Agency’s messages to the Greek police also noted that AEK fans had been informed about these arrivals and were getting organized near the OPAP Arena in Nea Filadelfia. Based on this information, the police headquarters issued an order to the Kakavia border and to Thessaloniki officials, but despite the warning from the central offices and from Montenegro authorities that the hooligans had travelled through the latter country, the convoy managed to travel through Greece toward Athens without being stopped.”
If there is a “Holy Grail” in security, that is intelligence. Authorities try several means (e.g., surveillance, interrogation, cover operations, transnational cooperation, etc.) in order to gain intelligence. This intelligence helps with risk assessment and preparing adequate prevention and/or countermeasure plans. But as precious as information can be in order to prevent a security threat, it becomes completely useless if it is not considered and evaluated promptly in order for action to take place. Unfortunately, there are examples of unsuccessful international cooperation around a variety of security threats, with countries failing, e.g., to prevent terrorist attacks, not because of a lack of information about perpetrators but because information that other countries had was not shared or because domestic authorities did not take seriously the information shared by foreign agencies.
Thus, despite prior knowledge, security threats are often not prevented as they should and could be. It is important to look for institutional weaknesses that prevent authorities from acting on information already there. Is it just the incompetence of domestic authorities? Is it mistrust of intelligence coming from foreign agencies? Do agencies share all that they should? Is there too much bureaucracy preventing the timely and effective use of intelligence? Unless the problem is detected in order to be addressed, international cooperation and its fruits can just be wasted.
2 Prevention is the key
UEFA stated after the serious incident that “violence has no place in our sport and we expect that those responsible for this terrible act be arrested and consigned to justice in the shortest delay.” Moreover, Greek Police have arrested around 100 suspects after the deadly event. Yet, arrests (after the crime has taken place), strict laws, and their application by courts cannot be seen as an adequate, effective solution to hooligan violence. Of course, the existence of laws criminalizing violence, recognizing and addressing hooliganism as a criminal behaviour is essential. It expresses the way the state and society stand against this phenomenon, showing that they neither accept nor tolerate it. And legal provisions for strict sentences can make sense in the above-mentioned framework (although criminological research seems not to have proved a direct connection between harsh penalties and a decrease in crime). However, the application of laws by courts regards the facts of specific cases, and judges decide about certain accused persons, applying the rules of criminal law and criminal procedure. The courts’ role is not to teach society. It is to decide whether the specific accused person is guilty or not. Furthermore, a court decision can do nothing to really rectify the loss of life. In the same way, although arresting culprits is fundamental for the criminal justice system to function and for the state to show its reflexes against crime, it is a belated response. Crime has already occurred, and its results cannot be undone. This is why it is imperative to prevent hooligan violence.
So this is now the crucial question: Is it possible to prevent hooligan violence? Like with any type of criminal behaviour, the answer cannot be a simple yes or no. There are indeed things that can be done in order to reduce such incidents or keep violence under effective control before it escalates and becomes deadly. Once there is information about a threat, a proper risk assessment must be carried out, analyzing the various parameters of the threat. Then authorities need to proceed to “security mapping”, locating possible targets of violence or areas where violence could erupt. According to the security mapping, appropriate preparation for responses must be organized (e.g., situational prevention measures) in order to make it difficult for perpetrators to reach the target and/or act according to their plans.
3 Hooliganism as a form of extremism
Getting prepared to thwart a security threat is mandatory, but to counter the phenomenon of hooliganism, we also need to address the reasons behind its formation. What makes (usually young) people organize into groups and act so violently? What makes them get fanatical to the point of traveling to other countries in order to clash with other groups and even kill people in the name of their “love” for their sport’s team?
We are used to connecting extremism with religion and/or ideology. Yet, extremism should be understood as having many more possible faces. When we are talking about hooligans, there are so many points that resemble religious or politically motivated extremists and their radicalization to violence. Actually, certain ultras can indeed be affiliated with extreme political ideologies (allegedly, this is the case with the Croatian Bad Blue Boys reported as nationalists). For this reason, radicalization experts have raised awareness about how “any discussion of hooliganism and extremism must include an analysis of the rise of the ultra groups in Europe.” In any case, looking at the use of symbols, narratives, rhetoric of hate, and online activity, as well as the mechanisms for joining ultras and gaining an identity and sense of belonging as a member, we cannot escape comparison with politically motivated and religious extremist groups. This means we need to work towards deconstructing hooligan groups’ narratives, possibly recognizing grievances, polarization, and conflict in society that create fertile ground for members to be recruited. And of course, the same way we do with other extremists, we need to map and understand individual pathways (that may show psychological and/or other problems) and offer tailor-made ways out and disengagement programs, preferably before they engage in violence.
Incidents of hooliganism are there to remind us that security is a very complex issue and that threats are dynamic, coming from various sources. We need to be flexible and ready to use knowledge gained from dealing with similar security threats and phenomena, adapting them accordingly. Short-term and long-term effectiveness and success are required. The challenge is difficult since, especially when athletic events are prepared, security must be ensured in settings that must allow the presence of large crowds of people, often with international participation. This is why competent authorities have to be on top of their game.
 Soccer hooligan clash leaves one dead, https://www.ekathimerini.com/news/1217309/soccer-hooligan-clash-leaves-one-dead/
 Night of mayhem: Stabbings, brawls and arrests mar Greece Croatia football game in Athens, https://www.euronews.com/2023/08/08/night-of-mayhem-stabbings-brawls-and-arrests-mar-greece-croatia-football-game-in-athens
 AEK, Dinamo Match Cancelled after Greek Fan Dies in Clashes, https://balkaninsight.com/2023/08/08/aek-dinamo-match-cancelled-after-greek-fan-dies-in-clashes/
 Greek police initiates internal inquiry over failure to prevent incidents by Dinamo Zagreb hooligans, https://www.capital.gr/english/3731513/greek-police-initiates-internal-inquiry-over-failure-to-prevent-incidents-by-dinamo-zagreb-hooligans/
 Champions League match postponed after Greek football fan stabbed to death during brawl, https://www.cbsnews.com/atlanta/news/champions-league-match-postponed-after-greek-football-fan-stabbed-to-death-during-brawl/
Man dies and almost 100 arrested in Athens and Dinamo Zagreb fan violence as Champions League tie postponed, https://www.standard.co.uk/sport/football/athens-dinamo-zagreb-fan-dies-champions-league-b1099332.html
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 Haanstra, W. & Keijzer, F. (2018), EX POST PAPER: Learning from adjacent fields:the relation between extremism and hooliganism, Study visit to Warsaw (PL), p.4, https://home-affairs.ec.europa.eu/system/files_en?file=2020-09/ran_study_visit_learning_from_adjacent_fields_25-26_10_2018_en.pdf