Football's Big Fear

They descended on Briesen in the middle of the night, about a hundred in all. In the cold of late November, in the woods surrounding the little German border town, the rumble began. By the time anti-hooligan police arrived, the German and Polish football thugs had slashed each other with knives and inflicted bruises with clubs. The message was clear, police say: this was a "warm-up" for the World Cup.

It seems hooligans are back. In their 1980s heyday, football thugs ran rampant across Europe. "Firms," as the hooligan units were known, were organized, efficient. By the time of the 1990 World Cup in Italy, many English hooligans--regarded as the worst--didn't even bother buying round-trip tickets. They knew they would be deported, which would be cheaper. In recent years, however, new tactics have helped contain the problem. Team fan clubs--particularly in England--have distanced themselves from violent elements. Governments have prevented known hooligans from travel abroad. During the Euro 2004 tournament in Portugal, police maintained a minor presence at all times and called in the riot force only when fighting broke out, which worked wonders in minimizing the mayhem. John Williams, a hooliganism expert at the University of Leicester, says Portugal appeared to have marked "a sea change" in the atmosphere around major football tournaments.

But the hooligans are crafty--and relentless. Often unable to cause havoc at matches themselves, thugs from nations like Poland, Croatia, Germany, England and Slovenia have used the Internet and text-messaging to organize so-called off-site battles--like the one outside Briesen. More recently, football-related violence has flared in Slovenia and Poland, in large part because security measures there are not as stringent as in nations with a long history of hooliganism. And several Polish firms have reportedly declared that they see the World Cup as a chance to prove that they are the "best" hooligans in the world. British hooligan expert Dougie Brimson warns that English fans will be a "prime target" for foreign firms out to seize England's former reputation for producing the most dangerous supporters.

German authorities insist they'll have the tournament under control. The country's top anti-hooligan official dismissed warnings of trouble as "panic-mongering." Much depends on the police: British hooliganism expert Geoff Pearson says concerns about violence often become a "self-fulfilling prophecy" when riot police roll out in force, and end up drawing attacks. The experienced German police are unlikely to make that mistake. But plenty of thugs may be looking for a fight anyway.