By Constantinos Psillides
WELL OVER 200 police officers and around 130 members of the public, match officials and football players have been injured in sports related violence in Cyprus in the last decade, a British former top police officer has discovered.
In a week which saw the House of Representatives fail to pass the long-awaited bill to tackle rampant hooliganism, the British expert’s research has highlighted yet again the desperate need for police to have the means to root out hooligans.
By trawling through media archives, Michael Layton, the former chief superintendent of the West Midlands police force in England, has collected data going back to 2003.
He cites 77 matches where one or two of the Big Five – APOEL, AEL, Omonia, Apollon, Anorthosis – were playing. Besides football matches, Layton also looked into 13 basketball and volleyball matches during the same period which again involved the same clubs.
In every single one of these games some sort of disorder occurred, according to Layton.
“More than 211 police officers have been injured whilst policing football matches, and at one fixture an officer died of a heart attack during disturbances. Officers have been stabbed, burnt, suffered broken noses, fractures, and routinely hit with rocks and missiles on at least 43 occasions,” said the former director of intelligence and operations with the British Transport Police (BTP) who was directly involved in the British police force’s fight against hooliganism.
According to his data, at least 128 members of the public, match officials, or players have been injured or assaulted during the course of these games.
He said that the vast majority suffered violent attacks with burns, head injuries, loss of fingers, loss of eyesight, and other injuries recorded, many of which required hospital treatment.
The youngest victim of football violence was just 12 years of age.
For Layton, and most experts in the fight against hooliganism, the police’s key weapon is that violent fans lose their anonymity.
And it was precisely on this issue – the provision of fan identity cards – that the justice ministry bill stalled on Thursday.
Parliamentary parties, with the exception of ruling DISY and former coalition partner DIKO, decided to postpone the vote on the bill for two weeks, so a compromise can be reached on some of the bill’s provisions.
The request to postpone voting was put forth by main opposition party AKEL. Party general secretary Andros Kyprianou told the plenum that he agreed that “the gangrene of sports related violence had to be dealt with but this bill contains provisions that were adopted in other countries and later withdrawn.”
Kyprianou’s comment mirrored those made by party MP Aristos Damianou a week ago, when he told the press that the bill employed “Thatcherite practices that the English have abandoned years ago”. Damianou promised then that his party would table its own bill to deal with hooliganism, which they probably will in the coming week.
While AKEL does raise some good questions – a fine for even covering your face partially in and near the stadium and for standing up during the match can be characterised as draconian – the party’s main opposition is over fan cards.
The fan card – a card issued for anyone who wishes to buy tickets to a sporting event – has also angered fans who view it as a tool to be used by police to keep tabs on them, even though the police will have nothing to do with the registry. AKEL, with its strong ties to Omonia, one of the biggest team in Cyprus, has always been in the frontline of the war against the fan ID card.
A compromise on the fan card appears impossible. Justice Minister Ionas Nicolaou has repeatedly said that the bill is a “package deal” and that he would not give in one inch over the need for cards. He also made clear that the bill had to pass before the House closed for its summer recess.
Ionas has the full support of the Cyprus’ top police officers. Sergeant Michalis Herodotou, head of police anti-hooliganism office, told the Sunday Mail that fan cards were a crucial instrument, while police chief Zacharias Chrysostomou said they were an absolute necessity.
“We wish we didn’t have to go this far but we have to adapt to the situation before us,” said Chrysostomou.
For Layton the failure to pass the bill was a missed opportunity.
“It will leave the public and politicians ‘wringing their hands’ when violence inevitably erupts again at the start of the next season,” he said. “The figures themselves over the last 11 years alone tell a dismal story of constant dialogue, followed by strong messages of condemnation and promises of action, which are all too often not followed through. The new police chief has already made it clear that he does not want to see people mourning the death of someone caught up in this type of violence.”
The former police superintendent also notes that not dealing with football violence has an actual monetary cost, since fans are destroying stadiums and private property, while insurance companies are forced to fork out money to cover damages. This leads to increased premiums – the cost of which is passed to fans via ticket price increase- while treating victims of football violence in hospitals also adds to the pile.
In his research Layton also studied how MPs responded to football violence. He noted more than 40 political interventions, with statements from ministers and politicians, and more than 200 meetings and seminars which were attended by members of the House Legal Affairs Committee on the subject.
“Hooligans will see the failure of this bill as a triumph which is why a strong message needs to be delivered to them at the start of the new season that the ‘battle’ is actually just starting and that ‘the gloves are off’,” he said.
As for AKEL’s opposition to fan cards, Layton pointed to the widespread use of social media such as Facebook and Twitter.
“These give out far more information of a personal nature than a fan ID card ever will,” he said.
“As long as there is a proper and transparent system for dealing with requests for information from the police through using appointed ‘Single Points of Contact’ it should not be an issue.”
He also questioned AKEL’s objections that some of the bill’s provisions had no place in a modern society.
“I would venture to suggest that in a ‘modern society’ people do not go around throwing rocks at each other on a weekly basis just for the fun of it,” responded Layton.