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Oct 6, 2009

Football's cyber hooligans

On the evening of February 11, while Germany were playing Norway, unexpected breaking news appeared on Schalke's official website, announcing the club had terminated the contract of striker Kevin Kuranyi due to "Kevin's intolerable statements directed at the team".

Just a few minutes later, the piece disappeared and the whole page was taken offline until the following noon. Yet it was too late. Some people had already spotted the item, among them a journalist who must have taken it at face value because two online publications soon spread the news.

But of course the only news item worth spreading was something else. As the club itself declared later that evening: "The homepage of Schalke 04 has been hacked with criminal intent and considerable effort."

The latter bit was debatable. Schalke use the open-source content management system TYPO3. It is also used for the homepage of Wolfgang Schäuble, the Minister of the Interior. And on February 10 (which, not coincidentally, was "Safer Internet Day 2009"), there had been a well-publicised attack on Schäuble's website, exposing a TYPO3 security hole.

Thus the effort required to pull off the Kuranyi stunt was probably not too considerable if you know your bits from your bytes. Which more and more football fans seem to.

Apparently there are not only digital nomads, there are also digital hooligans. Many of them. Wikipedia, for instance, is a hugely popular target for online thugs.

If an article is regularly "vandalised", as Wikipedia puts it, admins can protect it. Normally, this is a temporary measure and means editing will be restricted to trusted authors. In the current list of the 200 German entries that had to be protected most often in the past, the text dealing with Schalke 04 places ahead of articles many people would consider much more at risk, such as "abortion" or "9/11 conspiracy theories".

However, you shouldn't infer from this that Schalke's Wikipedia entry is more regularly vandalised than those of other clubs. It's just that in the past too many contributors have been either brave or naive enough to lift the protection. The last time somebody did that, in August of 2007, the experiment was an abject failure. So many Dortmund fans added insulting lines, hidden references or simply rude words that the Schalke article had to be protected again just five days later.

We can safely assume this is now going to be a permanent solution. After all, the article about Borussia Dortmund hasn't been unprotected since December 2006 and the entry for Bayern Munich is protected since June 2006.

Of course that's not to say online football hooliganism is a German phenomenon. In fact, it's not even restricted to Europe. Actually, there is very strong evidence that the United States have thugs, too. Consider the events of June 24.

Eleven minutes after referee Jorge Larrionda's final whistle confirmed that the US had beaten Spain to reach the final of the Confederations Cup, somebody of whom only the IP address is known logged on to the English Wikipedia site and changed the article about "FIFA World Rankings" ever so slightly: he made the US and Spain switch places in the rankings so that the Americans had suddenly jumped into first place and the Spanish sunk to 14th.

Even though the change was not immediately noticeable, it took a user in good standing, known as Chandler (a Liverpool fan from Sweden), only three minutes to spot it and restore the page to its original state. Yet seven minutes later, a second anonymous cyber thug barged in and put the US back in first place.

However, he blundered and forgot to put Spain into 14th place, so that the new ranking now had the US in two spots at the same time. This table was online for three minutes, then PeeJay2K3 (a Manchester United supporter who lives in Wales) came to the rescue and restored Chandler's version.

Alas, the unknown rowdy was still lurking in the background and had his version online again within 120 seconds. Well, and so it went on for another twenty minutes until J.delanoy, an admin who says he primarily works "in the vandal-patrol areas", finally protected the article until feelings had cooled down.

As it goes without saying, vandalising Wikipedia entries is a trifle easy compared to homepage hijacking. On July 22, people visiting the official Borussia Dortmund website briefly held their breath, as the homepage announced the club had signed Bayern's Italian striker Luca Toni. It was, naturally, just a hacker's hoax. A thankfully humorous one, I should add, considering some online thugs are less witty.

I don't know what it is with the Schalke website, but at 9.15pm on September 25, the day before the derby between Dortmund and Schalke, the club's official homepage was suddenly black and yellow instead of blue and white. That was followed by some tasteless anti-Schalke slogans and a few minutes later a message appeared that said a hacker (aptly named Daftt) had taken over the website. Once again, Schalke were forced to put the homepage offline until the next morning.

Not so stupid but more serious were attacks on Eintracht Frankfurt's homepage in April and May. However, they were not perpetrated by Offenbach fans or other rivals but by Eintracht's own support.

On April 23, the club website was subjected to, excuse the jargon, a distributed denial-of-service attack, which means that hackers generated so many communications requests that the site became unresponsive due to heavy traffic. On May 2, while Eintracht lost at home to Dortmund, it happened again. And three days later, the cyber hooligans struck once more - this time to plant a ransom note on the homepage.

The text read: "We demand the sacking of Eintracht Frankfurt coach Friedhelm Funkel - immediately! Otherwise we will expand our attacks and target areas that are important to the club (ticket sale/online shop)." Eintracht filed a criminal complaint, but it remains unclear whether the attacks stopped due to police interference - or because, on May 21, Funkel announced he'd cancelled his contract.

All of this is by way of coming around to the observation that football wars are being waged on the web, often behind our backs. And while I don't approve of cyber hooliganism, online vandalism or digital extortion, you have to concede these scuffles are, by definition, not physical. So perhaps it wouldn't be such a bad idea to move all action to the internet the next time Millwall get drawn against West Ham in the Carling Cup.

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