When the final whistle blows at soccer matches across Europe, it often serves as a signal for a small core of ardent fans to take over center stage. Clad in their team colors and pumped full of alcohol, these spectators go on rampages against supporters of rival clubs in bloody urban warfare, euphemistically known as the "third halftime."
For this year's European soccer championships, hosted by Belgium and the Netherlands, authorities are taking unprecedented measures against so-called soccer hooligans. And in doing so, Germany and England - Europe's two leading exporters of this behavior and whose teams meet on the field Saturday - are testing the limits of civil liberties. Both countries have passed new laws to ban known rowdies from traveling to the games. Germany has sent squads of police to keep hooligans from crossing the borders. And British officials say they will cut off the welfare benefits of any unemployed workers spotted at the Euro 2000 matches.
Earlier this year, two Liverpool fans were stabbed to death by local fans in Istanbul. When English and Turkish clubs met last month in Denmark, hooligans raged again. Since the Euro 2000 tournament began last weekend, there have been sporadic clashes between fans and police, despite unusually tight security measures.
Germany has taken the most extreme precautions, changing its passport law, prohibiting hundreds of known rowdies from traveling abroad, and stationing a thousand police on the border with Holland and Belgium, where there are usually no passport controls.
"We support these measures because we're still standing under the shadow of France '98," says Michael Novak of the German Soccer Federation, referring to the near-fatal beating of a French policeman by German hooligans during the last World Cup. "It can't happen again that German citizens abroad behave in such a way and injure people life-threateningly."
This time around, says Mr. Novak, the preparations have been more thorough.
Berlin recently amended the German passport law, making a hooligan's violation of a travel ban a criminal act. Prosecutors no longer have to prove whether or not that person committed a crime while abroad. Of course, German authorities cannot physically prevent a known hooligan from leaving the country. But several hundred violent fans have been personally warned by officers and are being required to report periodically to local police stations during the soccer tournament.
The rise of hooliganism has spurred police from different European nations to work together much more closely than in the past. In February, the interior ministries of Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands hammered out a special security plan for Euro 2000, including the presence of German policemen in the host countries. "The point isn't that security dominates sports," said German Interior Ministry official Rdiger Kass. "But it can't be that the public perceives sports as being dominated by violence."
Just in case, 80,000 cops are on call in Belgium and the Netherlands. A German state prosecutor has been sent to assist his colleagues at the Euro 2000 crisis center, and several liaison officers from countries such as Sweden and the Czech Republic are also present. British authorities have supplied Belgian and Dutch police with details on 1,000 known hooligans.
In Charleroi, Belgium, the site of the Germany-England match, a special detention center for 1,000 unruly fans has been set up. There was even talk of moving the game to Brussels for security reasons, but the authorities claim they are well prepared.
"Ninety-nine point nine percent of the English and 99.9 percent of the Germans simply want to watch soccer - in a way that it was in 1966 and again and again," says Novak in reference to the historic soccer rivalry between the two countries. In the 1966 World Cup, England defeated Germany with the so-called "Wembley goal," a referee's controversial judgment whose physics have been analyzed in Germany as much as the bullet that killed John F. Kennedy has been studied in the US.
England must tie the match to stay in the tournament. The German team, defending European champion, is coming off a string of mediocre performances. Both London and Berlin are jittery about the image loss should hooligans rob the actual game of its headlines.
While British law does not allow for as harsh restrictions as are possible in Germany, authorities in London have used a new law to issue travel bans to some 100 known hooligans.
In Germany, where the love of order is older than the devotion to civil rights, criticism of the security measures has been muted. "It's typically American to get outraged about the travel ban, and typically German to accept it," says Thomas Gehrmann, who has written a book on hooligans. "It is a serious violation of basic rights."
For England and Germany, there's something else at stake Saturday. They are the only two European nations in consideration for hosting the 2006 World Cup. The host will be chosen in July and excessive violence in Charleroi could damage their chances.
Hooligans have few sympathizers or advocates in society at large. European Union rules allow free movement within the 15 member countries. But a court in southern Germany recently threw out the case of a hooligan who protested his travel ban. And a hooligan demonstration in March "against the police state" was barely covered in the German media. "Nobody reported on it because there wasn't a fight," says Mr. Gehrmann.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society