The riots that brought British football together

The riots that brought British football together

In 1988, The Firm, a prime example of in-your-face realism – directed by Alan Clark – was first shown on British television, and since then British films have, with varying degrees of success, occasionally tried to present to the public a picture of the blunt passion and quasi-religious fanaticism associated with life as a ‘casual’.

Ranging from the entertaining to the dreadful, British films have attempted to capture a truly unique part of our culture, to the extent that the period in which our game was ravaged by football hooliganism is often romanticised. It takes no great leap of the imagination to identify a great many years shared between the sustained period of success in Europe by English clubs, ubiquitous terracing and hooliganism, dubbed the ‘English Disease’.

This tribalism, the type that spills thoughtlessly into violence, can be considered to be a rare sighting on the landscape of British football in 2015, however when it was synonymous with the British game, it stimulated both anger and shame.

This takes us to 2000 when something, for lack of a better term, truly unique in the history of British football happened: rival hooligan firms travelled over land and sea to Copenhagen, united in their search for ill-advised revenge, seeking justice for the deaths of what they deemed to be two of their own. In a grander, but still less reasoned, re-enactment of ‘I can bully my little brother, but if you do there’ll be trouble’ the 2000 UEFA Cup final between Arsenal and Galatasaray became the final that, for a day, brought British football together.

On 5 April 2000, Leeds United fans Christopher Loftus and Kevin Speight were fatally stabbed by fans of Galatasaray in Istanbul; this was the night before the first leg of the 2000 UEFA Cup semi-final between the clubs and the deaths of these two men led, as violence often does, to more violence. Calls were made to postpone the game and those same calls were dismissed.

An organised minute of silence preceded the first leg; those players wearing the white of Leeds wore black armbands, whilst the unusual Galatasaray invitation towards European opponents – welcoming them to “hell” – was deemed unnecessary. Nevertheless, this, and the presence of tight security, failed to change the British perception of Galatasaray fans as the most deserving of their reputation. Leeds fell to a 2-0 loss, rueing missed chances and sloppy defending.

Galatasaray fans were banned from the return leg, leaving a group of less than a hundred Turkish representatives to travel, like scapegoats outcast into the desert, to West Yorkshire. Their buses were unsurprisingly attacked and local Turkish businesses were advised to close early. Leeds performed better in the second leg, as Galatasaray scrambled to a 2-2 draw on the night and a 4-2 win overall, but the first minute of the game is likely to remain a mystery to most of the Leeds fans present that evening; they chose to turn their backs to the pitch, protesting what they saw as an injustice against their club.

Football can bring people together in a way that usually only religion, art or popular TV series’ can. Football has the ability to take those who usually would be no more than the two feet that walk, in paralleled indifference, alongside your own in the street, and transform them into your comrade, with whom you have shared some of the greatest, most ecstatic seconds of your life; but also some of the lowest times, when you have questioned your dedication and commitment to what is a game, after all.

On 17 May 2000, football brought together those who, by all intents and purposes, despised each other – the red and blue of Arsenal and Chelsea, the blue and white of Cardiff and Swansea – for one cause. With the half-thought out excuses of camaraderie and justice, hooligan firms representing Chelsea, Cardiff, Glasgow Rangers, Swansea, Arsenal and Leeds pilgrimaged to Copenhagen where Arsenal were to play Galatasaray in the UEFA Cup final, in the hope that they would avenge the deaths of two Leeds fans. Men were – in the years that followed – charged, found guilty and imprisoned for the murders of Loftus and Speight, but it is difficult to believe that even if these punishments had been handed out more immediately after April 2000 it would have stopped this group from seeking out their own Old Testament form of justice.

Denmark’s biggest security operation for a football match did little to stop Copenhagen’s quaint City Hall Square, with its rust coloured buildings pestered only by light rain on a humid day, becoming the backdrop for the blood and thunder type of aggression. Independent handicraft sellers, shoppers and families ran as riot police tried to fight against something altogether foreign to them.

Heavy, early evening rain brought with it calm as Copenhagen recovered. At least 24,000 football fans had travelled to Denmark’s capital, at least 20 were arrested and four were taken to hospital; one Arsenal fan, stabbed near City Hall Square, vowed to cheer on his team nonetheless. He was released in time for the match. But if you were to rely on the UEFA website for a summary of what happened that day your experience would be minute in comparison to his. You will find no mention of riots or of stabbings, no mention of Christopher Loftus or Kevin Speight, no mention of football firms or revenge.

The highlights of the game itself was the marvellous long hair of David Seaman alongside Tony Adams as they walked out of the tunnel hoping to give Arsène Wenger his first European trophy as Arsenal manager. Then, late in the first half, Arsenal’s back four travelled back in time to the days of George Graham, as they played the offside trap on the edge of their box, but Arif Erdem beat it – Adams and co. doing a bad impression of Horse in The Full Monty – only to drag his shot past the right-hand post.

Martin Keown deflected a Hakan Şükür shot onto the woodwork before missing a glorious chance at the other end. Fatih Terim, the Galatasaray coach, beckoned questions and accusations towards the referee and his players; when he saw that nobody was responding he laughed instead. Galatasaray captain Bülent Korkmaz showed everyone that, if there is a man that you want by your side as you fight for everything you hold dear, he is that man. In extra time Adams and Gheorghe Hagi did their best to resume partisan hostilities but the only effect that had was in getting Galatasaray’s Commandante sent off. Thierry Henry had a chance to score what would have been the golden, winning goal but headed straight at the opposing goalkeeper and so the game when to penalties.

Four Galatasaray players took penalties, and four scored, whilst three Arsenal players took penalties, but only one – Ray Parlour – found the back of the net. Patrick Vieira took Arsenal’s third and when he missed the Galatasaray fans could feel what the cold silver of the cup would taste like when Korkmaz and Şükür kissed it moments later. Galatasaray became the first Turkish club to win a major European trophy and Fatih Terim, with arms tired from gesticulations and expressions of indignation, celebrated.

Gheorghe Popescu incidentally scored the match-winning penalty kick. He had arrived at Galatasaray via Barcelona after a season-long spell at Arsenal’s north London rivals, Tottenham Hotspur. Speaking after the match he noted how the fans at his former club would no doubt share in his triumph; they had shared in the triumph of another former player, Nayim, who, playing for Real Zaragoza, had scored a last-minute goal from the halfway line to beat Arsenal in the 1995 UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup final.

The tribal lines, which had been smudged by blood in Istanbul and rain in Copenhagen, were dutifully re-drawn. So the firms of Leeds, Chelsea, Cardiff, Swansea and Rangers – their jobs done – departed, leaving Arsenal fans to mourn their loss in private. British football, brought together for a day – a day that did nothing to sell British football in a positive light on the pitch or off it – was again taken apart and, like teenagers on the morning after a rave, everyone stumbled home, sure in the knowledge that the next time they saw each other it wouldn’t be the same.

The 2000-01 season would soon be amongst them and friendship wouldn’t be tolerated. Hostilities between English and Turkish clubs would continue as Leeds met Beşiktaş in the Champions League the following season, but when Arsenal invited Galatasaray to participate in the Emirates Cup in 2013, despite an initial backlash from Gunners fans, all was cordial again.

By Gboyego Odubanjo

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