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Monday, October 13, 2003
Death most surreal

Phil Ball

It's been a difficult week for Spain and a difficult year for Galicia. In the former case, a week of what might best be described as 'fratricidal' violence was rounded off in perfect tonal harmony with the national team's failure to qualify automatically for Portugal 2004, despite winning 0-4 in Armenia.

In the latter, more regional case, the Galician slogan 'Nunca Mais!' (Never again!) - used by the locals affected by the 'Prestige' oil slick catastrophe last November, has now been adopted as a sort of macabre counterpoint by the Spanish football press in reaction to the death of Deportivo's 31 year-old supporter Manuel Ríos last Tuesday after the game at neighbouring Compostela.

On the same night, the Castellón-Valencia derby in the Spanish cup was called off five minutes from the end after the referee Téllez Sánchez was hit by a mobile phone. And all this after the press had managed to get its uptake breath after the scenes the previous weekend, when another 'derbi' had been called off, this time in Asturias, after some serious squabbling broke out between hard-core followers of Unión Popular de Langreo and the recently demoted Oviedo, in Spain's Division 3.

Knives had flashed, two people had been hospitalised, and one of the men wielding a blade turned out to be a gentleman who had brought his young son along to the game. The fratricidal aspect of this outbreak of violence thus contained two elements - the regional derby and the perversely unique detail, in the Galician case, of the Deportivo supporter (also a father) dying under the flailing boot of a supporter of the same team.

One should not seek to make relative judgements about death, but in the often deviant reality of football violence, this incident comes across as particularly surreal. To add to the sensation of unreality, the Deportivo 'ultra' supporters group known as the 'Riazor Blues' publicly disbanded two days later, publishing their reasons on the web in a strangely articulate apology, ending their solemn message with an appeal to stop the violence.

As you can imagine, the TV and radio stations have been awash with sociological banter, whilst at street level the issues have been debated in that curiously public way that the Spanish deal with tragedy and affliction, whereby the verbal confrontation of the menace somehow implies that the problem has been solved, or at least minimised. In psychological terms, it's a decent enough trick, but at the political level, the problem doesn't dissipate quite so easily.

In an irony worth its weight in fool's gold, the Ministry of the Interior had published, only three days before the Oviedo game, a statistical report announcing that incidents of violence and crime in Spain (reported ones) had decreased by 3.9% over the year - the first time that the figure had dropped after four years of inexorable climbs.

The socialist opposition, as oppositions do, challenged the figures and suggested that they had been sexed-up, but they could have saved their breath to cool their porridge. Another person who should have also have saved his breath was Valencia's Salva Ballesta, loaned out this season to Malaga.

When asked for his reaction to the death of Ríos and what could be done regarding the problem of 'ultras' in Spain, he helpfully suggested that the best way to deal with violent supporters was to 'cut off their arms and legs'. Perhaps he plans to go into politics after he retires from the beautiful game.

But one cannot help but reflect that Galicia would seem to be a region under a curse. Just as it was beginning to recover from both the environmental and financial effects of the Prestige oil tanker disaster, and just as their two biggest teams seemed to be starting their campaigns in some style - Celta in their first ever Champions League campaign and Deportivo looking good in second place in the domestic league, the proverbial has once again hit the fan - if you'll excuse the pun.

The events surrounding the death have raised various questions, but in the sensitive framework of Spain's complex inter and intra-regional problems, no-one had noticed any particular rivalry between Compostela and Deportivo, the former side having fallen from grace in recent years down to the Second Division 'B', and Deportivo's ultra group usually reserving its ire for local clashes with Celta de Vigo, an industrial port closer to Portugal and a city that has always considered itself to be more 'authentic' than Coruña, which is seen as service-orientated and posh.

But one cannot help but reflect that Galicia would seem to be a region under a curse.

It seems that Ríos, accompanied by his wife and a friend, had walked out of the stadium and come across a group of Depor's 'Riazor Blues' group beating up a 14 year-old Compostela fan. Ríos decided to intervene, but was kicked in the ribs by one of the group, who, on realising that his by then prostrate victim was from Coruña, allegedly began to apologise. Ríos managed to get to his feet, but a rib had perforated his liver. He was dead within five minutes.

People have of course got carried away, but it might be as well not to read too much into the sorry business. In coldly statistical terms, this is the first football-related death since 1998, when a Real Sociedad fan was stabbed in Madrid by a member of the now defunct group 'Bastión', a neo-Nazi unit that was organised and which was affiliated to other groups in the murky world of Madrid's neo-fascist networks.

The killer was jailed and the group (who supported Atlético Madrid) disintegrated, but unlike the case of the Riazor Blues, there was no voluntary disbanding, nor public announcements of regret.

Try as the national press and the judiciary did to imply that the 1998 murder was not politically motivated, the supporters of Real Sociedad were always unlikely to view it as an isolated incident of violence. The Compostela death is more likely to end in a verdict of manslaughter, and it does appear to have been little more than a testosterone-fuelled fight in which the victim unfortunately decided to intervene.

Before 1998, you have to go back to the period 1990-1994 during which a total of four people died in football related violence, making it one of La Liga's darkest periods. There seem to be no particular reasons why the government should have announced ad hoc changes to the penal system, but they have, of course.

As from last Thursday, subject to approval, new legislation has been announced which will make 'sport-related violence' subject to stiffer penalties (between two and four years imprisonment), although the Bill failed to define what it meant by 'sport-related' and which justifiably invited editorials of quiet derision from the more liberal sections of the press. But the government must be seen to act, and act is has.

A better solution might have been to consider the structure of the King's Cup, a tournament that has been so tinkered with that it has lost almost all of its glitz, the tiny bit remaining being entirely due to the UEFA Cup carrot that is still on its menu.

The opening round has been changed in recent years and subjected to what looked, on the surface, like an attractive option. The games were changed from two legs to a knockout basis and were organised regionally, with the smaller club in the draw guaranteed the home advantage.

Apart from the dubious financial benefits of this reorganisation (the Compostela v Depor game attracted a mere 5,000) the opening round has become, inevitably, a round of 'derbis' (local derbies) where all the brotherly lack-of-love within certain regions can be given an annual focus.

The police presence at Compostela's stadium was almost nil (they probably couldn't afford it) and similar comments were made in the aftermath of the Castellón-Valencia game. It might be tough for the Spanish Football Federation to admit it, but they have created a problem which the Ministry of the Interior could easily solve, if it feels that this organisational criterion is simply adding fuel to the flames.

The other topic concerns the 'ultras' phenomenon. All Spanish clubs have them, and many of them seem pretty harmless, in a depressing, shaven-headed sort of way.

Unlike in Italy, an ultra in Spain belongs by definition to the political right, but at some clubs the participants in this largely dim-witted phenomenon go further than others in both words and deeds. Depor's 'Riazor Blues' and Celta's 'Brigadas Celestes' (Light Blue Brigades) seemed, before last week, to be at the more pitiful end of the spectrum, before hitting the headlines so suddenly.

They ritually traded infantile political insults on the web, each trying desperately to appear more neo-Nazi than the other, with the net result being the unsurprising revelation that most of them were unable to even spell the word 'fascist'.

As Antonio Salas, the undercover journalist who infiltrated Madrid's extreme-right scene pointed out, 90 per cent of the ultras who manage to find themselves a steady girlfriend retire from the active scene almost immediately. The 10% remain a worrying presence, but incidents like those of last week need to be firmly put in their place, so as to avoid the further glamorisation of belonging to these faintly ridiculous groups.

The Far Right has always been a repository of young male dysfunction, and the Spanish scene is hardly unique in this respect. But the Ultras scene is no better or worse than it ever was. Perhaps a few more gestures like that of the Riazor group might help to bury the whole thing once and for all, but I guess that's just wishful thinking. Whatever, it would be nice to get back to writing about football next week.


  • Phil's book on Real Madrid, White Storm. Also available, his splendid story of Spanish football, Morbo.
  • If you've any comments for Phil, email the newsdesk


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