Is Fan Misbehavior During “Derby” Rivalries Poisoning the Beautiful Game?

Have local rivalries in soccer become too dangerous or is the passion of the fans what makes the sport different to all others?

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Clint Hughes/AP

Manchester United's Rio Ferdinand walks off the pitch after he is hit in the face by an object thrown from the crowd during the English Premier League soccer match against Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium in Manchester, England, Sunday Dec. 9, 2012.

The 163rd Manchester derby on December 9 was a typically boisterous affair. Still reeling from effectively losing last season’s English Premier League because of two losses to Manchester City, Man. U., despite playing on the road, attacked from the outset and roared to a two-goal lead courtesy of Wayne Rooney. But “noisy neighbors” Manchester City didn’t lie down and accept defeat. Instead, former United player Carlos Tevez came in as a second-half substitute, and set up two goals to tie up the game. But with time expiring, a Tevez foul led to Robin van Persie’s last-gasp free kick that squirmed past City goalkeeper Joe Hart. Manchester United snatched all three points in the match, and opened up a pivotal six point gap in the Premier League standings.

(MORE: As City Hosts United, the Manchester Derby May Decide the English Premiership Race)

We wish that’s all that needed to be written about the fixture. As van Persie and his teammates celebrated the winning goal in front of their small pocket of supporters, some incensed home fans took the law into their own hands. United captain Rio Ferdinand was struck by a coin – Rooney had already been pelted with objects during the game – which resulted in a head wound and a cut above Ferdinand’s left eye. As blood poured out, another Manchester City fan, 21-year-old Matthew Stott, managed to make his way onto the field and was in the process of confronting Ferdinand before City’s Hart stepped in. Stott would later find out that he’s in line to receive a life ban from the Etihad Stadium. He desperately tried to backtrack by issuing the following statement: “I intend to write personally to Mr Ferdinand to express my extreme regret and apologies and also apologise to Manchester United and their fans. I would like to thank Joe Hart for his actions when I came on the pitch.”

And in an unrelated incident, the police arrested a supporter on suspicion of committing a racially aggravated public order offense during the match (he was held after officers reported hearing racist chanting).

Amidst the fallout, Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) chief executive Gordon Taylor has gone so far as to suggest, as has been carried out in some stadia in Germany, bringing in netting around the pitches to protect the players from the fans. “I think you’ve got to consider, as has been suggested, some netting in vulnerable areas,” said Taylor. “It could be behind the goals and round the corner flags.” Both United’s manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, and City’s captain, Vincent Kompany, rejected the idea, with the defender stating that “I would definitely say we need action on prevention but keep treating fans as human beings and not animals that have to be behind cages,” pointing out that “I hope actions will be taken but let’s not forget where football has come from and how far it has come.”

In all likelihood, Taylor wasn’t just concerned about the Manchester derby but a recent incident from the Yorkshire derby between Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds United. In the aftermath of Leeds’ equalizing goal, another 21-year-old, Aaron Cawley, ran on and attacked Wednesday goalkeeper Chris Kirkland before running back into the crowd without getting caught. Kirkland required treatment and the fan gave himself up the following day; he got four months in jail for his idiotic behavior.

(VIDEO: Mario Balotelli Opens Up to TIME)

Has it always been like this? The term ‘local derby,’ or ‘derby match’ reportedly goes as back as far as the 12th century, when two teams from Derbyshire, England played in a rough sport which mixed soccer with rugby, called the Royal Shrovetide Football Match. The goals were three miles apart which meant that the entire town got a flavor of the proceedings. The reason might also stem from the legendary Derby horse race (founded by the twelfth Earl of Derby in 1780). In any case, since 1840 the word ‘derby’ has been a noun to denote a sporting contest; the first printed citation supposedly appeared in the Daily Express, in October 1914, which wrote about “a local Derby between Liverpool and Everton.” Ironically, the Merseyside derby between Liverpool and Everton is one of the only fiercely contested local rivalries that doesn’t degenerate into violence, and that’s possibly because many families in Liverpool have split loyalties between the Reds and the Blues. This often results in both sets of fans sitting together when the teams meet, which seems to keep the peace.

It’s an all too rare example. In Scotland, games between Glasgow Celtic and Rangers are steeped as much in religion and politics as sport. People will go to almost any lengths to attend the matches in Buenos Aires between River Plate and Boca Juniors. Riots are commonplace with the police often powerless to prevent violence; the worst example was surely the tragic events of June 23, 1968, when 71 fans died at Estadio Monumental after being crushed at a gate; the investigation found nobody guilty.

Italy braces itself when AC and Inter face off in Milan or Roma and Lazio bring the capital to a standstill. And in Turkey, Galatasaray and Fenerbahce’s first ever friendly match in 1934 – though the game was anything but friendly – was reportedly abandoned due to rioting. Former British manager Graeme Souness didn’t exactly make his smartest ever decision when planting a Galatasaray flag in the middle of the Fenerbahce pitch after his team won the 1996 Turkish Cup final.

Back in the English capital, this hasn’t been a season to remember. The September clash between West London rivals Queens Park Rangers and Chelsea was never about a soccer match but rather John Terry’s return to Loftus Road for the first time since being found guilty of a Football Association racial abuse charge. Neither set of supporters distinguished themselves in a testy affair. More recently, Tottenham Hotspur’s derby against West Ham United was overshadowed by a pocket of away fans reportedly directing anti-semitic chants toward the Spurs fans (the North London side has always been viewed as a Jewish fan’s team of choice in London). The chants were vile beyond belief.

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Are we headed toward a scenario where certain games need to be played with the measures outlined by the PFA’s Taylor or, even worse, behind closed doors? At Loftus Road on Saturday, where QPR played Fulham, its even nearer West London rival, Fulham fan Kieran Crilly, 53, was horrified at the prospect of changes to the derby match. “Over the top” is his response to the proposed measures. “The suggestion about netting is ridiculous. The derby makes football something special,” he says.

As for the game, which QPR won 2-1 to finally register its first league win of the season after 17 attempts, there was nothing to suggest changes would be needed. In fact, the sellout crowd of 18,233 was witty rather than worrisome. “Al-Fayed, woo-oh,” chant the Fulham contingent about their owner Mohamed Al-Fayed. “He wants to be a Brit/And QPR are s___t.” There’s more where that came from: “Stand up if you’ve won a game,” they mock. “Can we play you every week?” is the response from the home crowd after they take a deserved lead. The three points, courtesy of Adel Taarabt’s two goals, go to Rangers but the last word belongs to Fulham’s fans. “We all hate Chelsea” they sing for everyone inside Loftus Road stadium. Sometimes, it seems, a mutual loathing can bring rivals together.

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