Use of military language- words like battle, settle old scores, do or die-incites fans to violence, hooliganism
By Idris ‘Shoes’ Lule
Soccer is the only sport known to have caused a bloody war between two countries. It is also the only sport in which opposing fans pick the results on the pitch and translate them into riots leading to injuries, destruction and death.
Little wonder it features the most number of anti-riot police and fans have to be separated by security barriers, barbed wires and in South America, water bodies and police dogs.
So violent can soccer be that in South America, FIFA allowed the sourcing of referees from Europe and whose contracts promise them three things: gun, good salary and a decent burial!
Rugby, a more physical contact team sport, does not exhibit the violent rage witnessed in soccer. Rarely do rugby fans turn pitches into battle fields after unfair referee calls or team loss. Could it be that rugby attracts more educated players, more civilized fans than soccer’s ‘Eastlands crowd’?
Research indicates the military language used by football reporters is partially to blame for the hooliganism borne of entrenched resentment between teams and their fans.
Sports journalists often use the following words, metaphors and turns of phrases on headlines before crucial matches: Fight, battle, settle old scores, do or die. The body of the story could also feature words like clash, crush, explosive, pounce, maul, strike, high stakes, shoot, redemption, rescue and hooliganism
And matters can come to an injurious head when teams being featured are life-long soccer rivals.
In Kenya, the Mashemeji Derbies between eternal enemies Gor Mahia and AFC Leopards are well-documented. In October 2010, seven fans died and hundreds others injured at the Nyayo National Stadium that black Saturday. It was a ‘grudge’ match since AFC had won the first one in May, a solo last-minute goal by Congolese Dumonde Selenga.
Fans of Gor Mahia call themselves The Green Army from the colours of the team kit. Most view themselves as Generals and soldiers going to war against AFC Leopards. Some carry wooden guns, others walkie-talkies.
The vocabulary of sport is loaded with military illustrations: analogies like attack , shot, midfield, enemy, defense or fight
Local sportscaster Bernard Otieno in his 2016 research titled, Use of language in sports headlines reporting soccer in Kenya, notes that Gor Mahia and AFC Leopards are the “regional spine of Kenyan football” but that having their roots as neighbours from Western Kenya but of different ethnic extraction has been “converted into conflicts that were frequently violent, particularly somewhere around 1970 and 1990, which nourished the Leopards/Gor Mahia predominance of Kenyan football.”
Otieno notes that “the vocabulary of sport is regularly loaded with military illustrations: analogies like attack , shot, midfield, enemy, defense or fight, dominate sports headlines” and that “language used in soccer headlines reporting set the stage for the expectations of the fans and other stakeholders in football. Money, pride and prestige are all at stake whenever there is a soccer competition.”
Otieno contends that “the language used might affect the audience perception either positively or negatively, fuelling animosity and resentment on one side and pride and joy, and even patriotism and nationalism on the other side.”
Since fans follow soccer stories on sports pages where they come across words like; cage, acid test, daggers drawn, storm, deadly, march on and hemorrhage…creating the impression of a sport in which constant shoving and tackling down as the ways to victory.
Otieno cited military headlines in 2014 which went like: Who Will Survive? City Stars scheme to empty KCB vault in battle to remain in top flight football. Is Kenya ready to bite the Fifa bullet? Gored Again, No Longer At Ease; Misfiring soldiers hoping to rediscover their winning ways against KRA, Date With Destiny; Musonye challenges Gor Mahia to shine in a must win clash against APR.
When the body of the story spiced with ‘crucial encounter’ and ‘share spoils’, the impression created is of soccer as a ‘constant battle.’
Otieno, who has commented even at the FIFA World Cup explains that the colourful military lingo like; fight to the bitter end, beat, sharpen attack, sink, dent and hunt down, are used to captivate and keep readers, but might in the end “align the reader to a particular reality and identity.”
The reality could be a ‘grudge match ‘while the identity could be one’s ethnicity or nationality. When AFC Leopards lose to Gor Mahia-as they often do- the media reports that the team ‘Let down the Luhya Nation.’ When Kenya is playing Uganda the duel is dubbed the ‘Migingo Derby’ after the tiny island which has been a source of diplomatic row.
Like war, soccer has casualties- glory of winning, disgrace of defeat
American sports scholar John Turnbull noted that “football is a game of contested space” besides being bound with scorn, envy, pretentiousness, dismissal of all standards and twisted joy in seeing violence.
Like war, soccer has winners and losers-the casualties-it features “cooperation, strategic thinking, readiness, spectator conduct, glory of winning and disgrace of defeat” and when mixed with the murderous passion drawn from it being an emotive sport, then the heated intensity can lead to explosive hostility among fans with the stadium as war zone.
In fact, the world’s first Soccer War took place in 1969 when Honduras squared it out with El-Salvador in a three-leg qualifier for the 1970 World Cup in Mexico.
Honduras lost two of the three qualifiers-the third was played in neutral Mexico.
Defend the national colours, this match was for our national dignity
The media’s use of military language only excited nationalist tensions. In the first leg Honduras scored in extra time. An El-Salvadorian female fan committed suicide. Her funeral was beamed live on television. Fan riot exploded simmering animosity leading to nationalistic violence as Salvadorian media used the match to “create a point of national honour.”
The return leg in El-Salvador was such that the Honduran national team slept in their Embassy. Their national flag was replaced with a sack. On home soil, El-Salvador played a revenge match and in four minutes were 3-0 up. Honduran star Enrique Cardona recalls that “We’re awfully lucky that we lost. Otherwise we wouldn’t be alive today.”
Honduras-five times El-Salvador in size- attracted immigrants seeking opportunities but which created border tensions. When Honduras lost, gangs beat up El-Salvadorian immigrants, burnt their houses. Over 17,000 refugees left Honduras making one newspaper to suggest “El Salvador should civilize Honduras by force.”
Before the final match in Mexico, Argentine Gregorio Bundio, coach of the El Salvador, was summoned to the president’s home and commanded to “defend the national colours, because this match was for our national dignity.”
When José Antonio Quintanilla of El Salvador finally scored the winning goal in the 101st minute, diplomatic relations were severed by each government, and as tensions and violence grew, war became inevitable.
On July 14, 1969, the ‘Soccer War’ officially began featuring fighter planes (three were destroyed), military tanks, bombs and soldiers-60, 000 on both sides. Over 3000 people died, thousands injured, economies was brought to their knees, hatred lasted decades.
The war was spurred by government and the media whose reports reduced football support into “an intrinsic act of micro-nationalism” and magnified on the pitch of qualifying matches where winning is pegged on “deprivation, frustration, dispossession and denial.”
Novelist George Orwell explained it best in 1945 when he wrote his essay, The Sporting Spirit, in which he argued that “sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with disdain, desire, egotism, dismissal of all tenets and savage delight in seeing brutality: at the end of the day, it is war minus the shooting.”