Two Scary Hours on a Football Pitch

Last Sunday something terrible happened on a Dutch football pitch.  After a match between two amateur, youth teams, three boys (two 15 year-olds and one 16 year-old) beat up the linesman of the other team. The linesman, 41 year-old Richard Nieuwenhuizen, suffered blows on his head and neck, causing severe brain damage. He passed away a day later.

Discussions now focus on ‘violence on the football field’. Let me be clear. I totally agree with almost all measures that have been and will be taken to address what happened this time and to (try to) prevent such things from happening again. This weekend, all amateur football matches in the Netherlands have been cancelled. Meetings are organised at many clubs to talk about what happened. This weekend, professional teams will be wearing black mourning bands and will observe a moment of silence before their games. It cannot get enough attention.

When reading about what happened this weekend I was reminded about what happened to my team, back when I was still playing football myself, only a few years ago. On a Saturday afternoon we played in a, well, disadvantaged area in northeastern Enschede, against a team, Vosta, that (as we would learn later) was known for its aggressive nature. It were two of the scariest hours of my life.

During the first half of the game, we outplayed the  other team. Things got more aggressive and hostile the further the match proceeded. We were called names by both players and supporters – if I would believe them, I had several mothers, all of them with very unappealing characteristics. They started to foul us more and more, especially after we scored the 0-1 and 0-2. More and more people would gather along the sides of the pitch. The tension increased. Our linesman was bothered continuously by some group of grown-ups, who walked over to his side, called names, and tried to distract him. After a yellow card for one of their players, the referee received his first warning, with a number of players hissingly encircling him. We felt more and more insecure, and scared of showing our best. Nevertheless, we were up 0-3 at halftime.

During halftime, as we would learn, a massive crowd had accumulated. The ‘supporters’ of the other team had formed some sort of human hedge, by forming two lines of people, from the door of our dressing room to the pitch. We were forced, one by one, to walk through it – being shout at, pushed, and ensured that we ‘better not score again’. I remember, as if it happened yesterday, that I looked back when I reached and set foot on the pitch. It was unearthly. People along the lines of the pitch raised their fists, sometimes clamping sticks in them, to us, and yelled. We had never seen these people before – how could they have such a hatred of us? And they were not just unhappy recalcitrant adolescents, trying to pick a fight. They included parents. Elderly – of 70 years and older, waving with their walking sticks! And perhaps the worst: kids that were just 5 or 6 years old, being instigated by their parents.

The second half was just a war – an uneven one. So much happened that I could never recount all of it. From the start of the second half, those around the pitch yelled. After a few minutes, none of us entered into serious challenges anymore, since we learned quickly that those resulted in bruises. A continuous stream of hissed insults was sounded, trying to provoke a reaction. Although at the moment I felt that we were cowards, I think we did good in ignoring them as good as we could. I was grabbed in my most sensitive area at least twice, and I remember worrying over my mum – she was somewhere along the lines. The referee was threatened quite explicitly. Their linesman, to put it mildy, did not really observe the rules as most of us know them. The referee, quite obviously, let it all happen. He gave them 4 goals, of which most should have been called off for committed fouls – I remember that in the heat of the game, I was mad about that. Quite soon afterwards, though, I was happy that he did. I cannot blame him for thinking about his own security, and I can only wonder what would have happened if they, eventually, would not have beat us (they won, 4-3).

(I happen to have found a report of the match, written by someone from Vosta. I guess that if you want to hear both sides of the story, you can read this.)

At the end of the game, the father of one of my teammates suffered a blow on his head. He just tried to get his kid of the pitch safely. Our parents took the decisions to gather our things as quickly as possible. Without taking a shower, full of dirt, and still wearing our football boots, we jumped into our cars. We fled.

I remain at a loss as to what happened to us in Enschede – two of the scariest hours of my life. I went over it again, and again, and again. There was no way we could have prevented it from happening. As a matter of fact, I think we prevented a lot of nasty things from happening (perhaps of the kind that happened so tragically this weekend), by refusing to fight back, and by fleeing the scene immediately after the game.

The team we played against, Vosta, was known for its misbehavings and the violence it used long before we played them. It was not an incident. I cannot pretend to know what happened this weekend, but I would be very surprised if in this case, where tragically enough someone happened to die, it would have concerned an unprecedented incident. Indeed, the team from club SV Nieuw Sloten had misbehaved and even received warnings before.

It happens to be the case that in both cases, this weekend and years ago in Enschede, the aggressors were from ethnic (Moroccan) minorities. I don’t think I am qualified to judge about this, so I won’t – I’ll leave that to the reader. The discussion in media has centred around ‘football issues’, and what to do about them. As someone who knows a thing or two about statistics, I know that I should not draw conclusions based on just two observations, out of a seemingly infinite population. But I think it is fair to argue that this is not so much about football. The people I saw in Enschede would have caused troubles whether we were playing football, basketball, cricket, something else, or nothing at all.

I agree that many incidents happen with football, and that it is not a gentleman’s game like rugby, but much of this has to do with the size of the sport. Each weekend, around 30.000 games are played in the Netherlands only. Moreover, football is known for that people from every part of society participate in it. No wonder incidents happen.

It is also for this reason that it is a societal problem. Education is part of it, no doubt. My parents did not raise me teaching lessons so that I could ‘forget’ them when I entered a football pitch. It’s not just about the rules of the game – it’s about how you behave in life. It is thus also about groups within our society who, for reasons that escape me, do not adhere to the values most of us cherish and honour – perhaps the most notable one being to respect one another.

Let’s not blame the game for everything that happened, and give some attention to the underlying problems.

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