Last week's attack on the Togo national soccer team's bus in Angola resulted in the deaths of the driver, a press officer, and an assistant coach, and led to Togo's withdrawal from the Africa Cup of Nations. But the tragedy is hardly the first time that ugly political tension has invaded the beautiful game.
The Football War
Teams: Honduras, El Salvador
Damage done: Honduras and El Salvador battled in a three-leg World Cup qualifier playoff in June 1969 -- and went to war two weeks later in what is dubbed the Football War. Honduras already resented its neighbor by the late 1960s for the 300,000 illegal Salvadoran migrants who had passed into the country. In the spring of 1969, tensions reached new heights when Honduras began expelling many back over the border.
When the two teams met for a playoff, rampant fan violence -- in which several were killed -- caused media hysteria in both countries, leading to Honduras breaking off diplomatic relations on June 27. (Honduras won the first leg, 1-0, El Salvador triumphed in the second game, 3-0, and finally El Salvador qualified for the 1970 World Cup with a 3-2 win in neutral site Mexico.) On July 14, El Salvador initiated airstrikes on Honduran targets, and its army had invaded as far as 5 miles across the border the following day. Supply shortages halted the Salvadoran attack, and a cease-fire arranged by the Organization of American States came into effect July 20. All in all, 2,000 people were killed in the conflict, many of them Honduran civilians, and tens of thousands of Salvadorans were expelled from Honduras.
Heysel Stadium Disaster
Teams: Liverpool F.C., Juventus F.C.
Damage done: Thirty-nine fans died (and 600 more were injured), mostly Italians, just before the 1985 European Cup final in Brussels -- and the game was still played only a few hours later.
According to Liverpool fans, some Juventus faithful -- having purchased tickets in the “neutral” section for Belgian fans -- starting throwing missiles projectiles at English fans an hour before game time. In retaliation, a wave of Liverpool supporters rushed the neutral section, causing fans to flee toward a retaining wall, which collapsed, crushing many. Belgian authorities were criticized for deploying an insufficient number of police and for holding the match in an older stadium. Juventus hoisted the cup later that night after winning 1-0. All English football clubs were banned from European competitions for five years, and Liverpool received an additional two-year penalty.
Ethnic Tensions Explode in the Balkans
Teams: Red Star Belgrade, Dinamo Zagreb
Damage done: "To the fans of this club, who started the war with Serbia at this ground on 13 May 1990,” reads a plaque outside Maksimir Stadium in Zagreb, Croatia. The trouble started after the triumph of pro-Independence Croatian politicians in April 1990 national elections exacerbated ethnic tensions in then-Yugoslavia. The following month, a delegation of violent Red Star fans known as the Delije (“tough guys,” shown left in their later incarnation as a Serbian paramilitary unit), headed by future Serbian war criminal “Arkan” (Zeljko Raznjatovic), traveled to Zagreb for a match between the top Serbian and Croatian sides.
Brutal street fights ensued, and inside the stadium, the Serbian police officers who were assigned to provide security allowed the Delije free rein to attack Dinamo supporters. A counterassault by thousands of Croatians overwhelmed the police and the Delije in the largest pitch invasion in football history. Police reinforcements were called in, but not before Dinamo midfielder Zvonimir Boban famously kicked a policeman to the ground. (Boban later spent eight years at A.C. Milan and captained Croatia to a third-place finish in the 1998 World Cup.) The game was never played, but many of the fan-gangs involved that day later went on to join their respective sides’ paramilitary forces in the Balkan wars of the 1990s.
Egypt and Algeria Clash
Teams: Algeria, Egypt
Damage done: With a spot in the 2010 World Cup on the line, tensions between the two bitter North African rivals erupted last November. The same sides had been involved in a heated row 20 years before, after Egypt defeated Algeria to make the 1990 World Cup in Italy. In that episode, Algerian star Lakhdar Belloumi blinded the Egyptian team doctor in one eye with a bottle.
Weeks before the 2009 game even took place, both team’s websites were hacked, escalating tensions. Upon arriving in Cairo, the Algerian national team bus was stoned by Egyptian fans, and several players were injured. (Egyptian media claimed the incident was staged.) When Egypt scored a last minute goal to send the game to a playoff in Sudan, Cairo erupted in celebration. Twenty Algerian fans were injured in the chaos, but Algerian media painted a different picture of the aftermath: supporters burned alive, women stripped, fans killed in the streets -- resulting in the looting of Egyptian businesses in Algeria. Following Algeria’s win in the playoff later that month, a new round of violence erupted. Alaa Mubarak, one of Presidnet Hosni Mubarak’s two sons, claimed that assaults on Egyptian supporters in Sudan were premeditated. Both autocratic governments, however, were happy to use the episode to deflect criticism of their own regimes, at least for a short time. The brouhaha died down when the two governments quieted their state-run media coverage.
El Clásico Rivalry
Teams: F.C. Barcelona, Real Madrid
Damage done: One of the world's most famous and longest-lasting political football rivalries, the Barcelona-Madrid battle has been hot since their first bout in 1902. During the Spanish Civil War, the Fascists bombed Barcelona’s club house. Throughout the Franco era, Madrid was seen as the club of the regime, while Barcelona represented Catalonian regionalism. In 1939, the Catalonian language was banned, forcing Barcelona to remove the Catalan flag from its logo. Meanwhile, Franco bestowed favors on Madrid, often pressuring players on the verge of signing with Barcelona to join Madrid instead.
Nevertheless, the Barcelona grounds were one of the only places where Catalan could be spoken throughout Franco’s Era, leading to the club’s motto, “More than a Club.” Tensions are a lot lower in the post-Franco era but players from both clubs can’t take fans for granted. Perhaps most famously, three years after Luis Figo’s 2000 transfer from Barcelona to Madrid, a fan threw a pig’s head at him while he was lining up for a corner kick at Camp Nou Stadium in Barcelona.