Behind hate ball

Special to The Times

At times lately on the west edge of the city, it has felt unfashionable not to wear dark police garb or carry one of those transparent police riot shields.

For a recent Paris St. Germain soccer club match, for example, the Metro doors opened to reveal 10 police clustered just up the first staircase. Up the second staircase to the sidewalk, there stood another 25.

The arteries into the stadium were clogged with barricades as police seemed to outnumber non-police and officers checked tickets for an entire block from the gates. About 150 fans of the visiting Greek club Panathinaikos reached the stadium encircled in protective police.

Some police rode horses. Other police staffed water cannons. All told on the night of Dec. 13, about 2,000 officers policed 20,000, or one for every 10 spectators. For a match four days later against Nice, 2,000 policed 28,341, or one for every 14.2.

France, long lucky to trail other European nations in the grim standings of extreme soccer-fan violence, seems to have arrived, sadly enough.

Unlike England, which has spent two decades adamantly face-lifting its soccer to remove all but traces of violence from the stadium experience, much of France felt newfound shock on Nov. 23. That night, Paris St. Germain lost to Hapoel of Tel Aviv, 4-2, in the UEFA Cup, a second-tier, Europe-wide tournament.

Accounts vary somewhat as to the aftermath, but according to witnesses, a notorious pack of PSG fans hounded and threatened a French-Israeli Hapoel fan, shouting anti-Semitic slurs at the fan and racist slurs at the plainclothes police officer who began defending him.

Eventually, the officer fired his gun, killing one fan and wounding another.

The sports daily L'Equipe ran a black front page, and PSG held no home matches for the ensuing 20 days. Authorities postponed indefinitely the Toulouse match of Dec. 3. Before an away match with Lyon on Dec. 10, the team fled town to train. On the morning of Dec. 13, L'Equipe blared the headline, "Tout Le Monde Regarde" ("All the World Watches").

To a nation that deems soccer more marginal than do its neighbors -- rousing only when the national team pulls off some feat -- the incident spawned newfound debate. To the head of the football federation, the incident left him "shattered."

PSG and Ivory Coast player Bonaventure Kalou, speaking of a locally infamous subgroup of PSG fans known to sit in the Boulogne section of the stadium, told reporters, "This astonishes me that we wait for the death of a man to come to the realization that there were racist supporters and anti-Semitists in Paris. We have been too gentle with them and too lax. That means that today, they're taking the club as hostage."

Watching Paris St. Germain 10 years ago felt foreboding, John Williams of England's University of Leicester said. The fans were in charge of the stadium. Overt racism spewed unchecked toward opposing players from the Boulogne section. There was "the kind of acceptance" of a notoriously scary section "that has just become out of consideration in England over the last decade or so," he said.

Evidence of the two countries' separate realities might lie in Williams' former title, director of his university's Sir Norman Chester Centre for Football Research, which recently merged into the Centre for the Sociology of Sport. It might lie also in the title of the government arm known as the United Kingdom Football Policing Unit.

France lacks such emphasis, while you could call soccer the heart of England without much fear of rebuke.

So when England suffered a globally infamous spate of soccer-fan tragedies in the 1980s, it plunged into aggressive revamp mode. A mission to upgrade the stadium experience started in earnest after 1989, when 96 Liverpool fans died in the Hillsborough disaster after too many people hurried into a cramped old stadium tunnel just as the match started.

It's proof of the deathlessness of reputations that some Americans still consider English soccer hazardous, because the English fan of 2006 submits to controls many Americans would find downright shocking.

Home and visiting fans sit segregated with walls of security officers surrounding the visitors. Clubs sell "home tickets" and "away tickets" to exact this separation. Clubs record who buys which ticket and can pinpoint fault should trouble erupt. For some hot-headed rivalries, clubs won't sell available seats to people who lack a ticket-buying history.

Closed-circuit cameras eyeball every fan all the game long. You can't drink a beer -- or anything else in a cup -- at your seat. Rigorous campaigns have diminished racism and relieved racists of ticket privileges.

For travel to the World Cup in Germany last summer, authorities required past troublemakers to turn in their passports at local police stations.

And the stadiums.

In the 1990s, they became all-seat, shorn of the standing-only sections noted for brawling and other havoc. As soccer has moved up the economic scale to the rung of downright international glam, there's an impetus to keep up with posh European clubs in erecting spiffy 21st-century stadiums.

The United Kingdom has achieved "a displacement of hooliganism," Williams said. When aspiring brawlers meet up, it tends to be away from the stadium. While nobody believes the problem has been eradicated, stadiums have entirely new auras, not least with their increased female presence among fans.

Paris' Parc des Princes stadium, near the Roland Garros tennis complex, has the drab look of something that might have looked space age in the 1970s.

For years, said Patrick Mignon, a sociologist at France's Institute of Sport and Physical Education, authorities regarded disorder inside the stadium as preferable to disorder outside. "I think a lot of people just say that football supporters are not really interesting," he said. Indeed, the hooligans he has studied have a self-perception as victims of larger society.

Problems -- fights, the lighting of flares, rising strain between ethnicities that foiled the multiethnic hope of the 1998 World Cup title -- did occur, particularly between Paris and Marseille, but all told, France lacked the problems of Italy or Eastern Europe or Southern Europe or old England.

Still, Mignon finds it hard to envision the French in some galvanizing national effort, because it's hard to imagine the necessary groups and organizations convening, especially over a national non-priority. It's also questionable whether France would strain to adopt any English-style fan model. And to some Parisians, it's hard to imagine PSG lasting, as the city has threatened to yank financial support, and L'Equipe editorialized, "How long will residents of the neighborhood support the insupportable?"

"I was thinking the next day it could be our Hillsborough," Mignon said.

After several weeks hearing debate, he said, "Now, I'm not so sure."

With police as the stopgap, an eerie air held sway when the club returned after the 20-day delay. Officials put a freeze on ticket sales and closed the Boulogne stand, where empty red seats made the stadium seem cavernous. "When we went to warm up," PSG player Edouard Cisse told reporters, "we said to ourselves that the supporters would arrive a bit later. But finally, there weren't many more when we kicked off."

Some fans chanted, "Julien!" in honor of the deceased fan, Julien Quemener, a 25-year-old household-appliance mechanic. A humongous black banner with the white letters "JULIEN" dominated one end of the stadium. Afterward, L'Equipe reported, a handful of supporters, blaming the media for fan portrayal, berated journalists with, "Watch out Sunday."

The police had shown up by lunchtime to organize a night that ultimately went peacefully. At 2 p.m., almost seven hours before starting time, six police vans streamed single-file to line up in front of the stadium. By 8, they had reached ubiquity in such numbers that people wonder whether France can sustain this for every match.

Only by 9, with the fans filed in and the 49,000-seat stadium about 40% full, could some police take a break. In the backs of the police vans on a nearby boulevard, they could be seen through the windows eating dinner on tables.

In one van after another after another, bottles of red wine graced their dinner tables as they ate, with some officers sipping from actual glasses, a little reminder in the strange hubbub that this was still France.

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