Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Don’t Light Up!!

Last week, in a well-thought out and reasonable article in Hospital Pass, Dermot Looney presented the case for retaining the use of flares at Eircom League grounds, providing certain conditions are met. In a classic example of insulting one’s host, I would like to suggest that he is talking through his arse.

At the start of the season, Commissioner Dooney issued a directive that flares should be banned from all Eircom League grounds. Dermot takes issue with this, wondering whether the bould Roy is getting his priorities right, citing summer football, attendances, marketing etc as being more worthy of the Commissioner’s attention. Hmm! Which is more important – health and safety or club administration? Sorry, Dermo, I’m with Roy on this one. Heysel, Bradford, Hillsborough all have shown us where the real priorities are. It only takes one incident for a catastrophe to take place, and surely it is better to remove the possible cause of the catastrophe before it occurs.

But, “there has never been a serious flare incident in the history of the Eircom League”. No, there hasn’t, I agree. The fans who tend to wield these contraptions have so far acted very responsibly, as far as I am aware. Having said that, it is also true to say that there has never been a serious wounded rhinoceros incident in the history of the Eircom League, yet I would actively try and dissuade people from bringing said unfortunate beast to Jackman Park.. Its like the man who builds his house on top of a volcano, arguing that it hasn’t erupted before, so it won’t in the future.

Dermot then proposes that since these marine flares are readily available to the public, the law could hardly take the view that they should be banned from football grounds. Another interesting leap of imagination here. Bottles of whiskey and steak knives can both be bought in my local Dunnes Stores, but are generally regarded as unacceptable accoutrements at a football match.

Where do you draw the line? Should fireworks be allowed? Firecrackers? Smoke bombs? Why not permit hand grenades, providing they are in the hands of responsible people who are well known to the stewards? When a flare is lit in a crowd, how is a steward supposed to know who has lit it?

Anyway, whatever the arguments about the validity of flares, the fact remains that they have been banned, not by the legendary Mr. Dooney, but by UEFA . This does not mean that they are only banned for European games, but that they are banned for domestic games as well. And UEFA have the power, and in fact have wielded the power, to close grounds where flares have been lit.

UEFA did not take the banning of flares lightly. It was not merely a whim on the part of some nameless beaurocrat in Geneva, [or wherever UEFA lives] There is a litany of flare-related incidents across Europe, of which these but constitute a few:

Ø August 1999 – St. Etienne fans threw lit flares into the Marseilles fans’ enclosure.

Ø September 1999 – Polish fans threw lit flares at English supporters [okay, that’s more of a reason for retaining them – sorry]

Ø September 1999 – Italian police found explosives hidden in a cache of flares at the home of a Fiorentina fan.

Ø October 1999 – Fiorentina showered Man United fans with red and yellow flares at a Champions League game.

Ø October 1999 – A 17-year old fan was killed by a flare thrown from the terraces as Red Star and Partizan Belgrade fans clashed after a derby.

Ø November 2000 – At an AC Milan – Juventus game in Serie A, rival fans hurled flares at each other.

Ø November 2000 – Pavel Srnicek, the Brescia goalie, was struck by a flare at half time of the Serie A game with Reggina.

Ø January 2001 – The Cup match between AEK Athens and Olympiakos Piraeus was abandoned when rioting fans threw missiles and flares onto the pitch.

Ø March 2001 – Hertha Berlin supporters bombarded the pitch with flares in the game versus Energie Cottbus. A steward was struck in the face by a lit flare.

Ø August 2001 – Flares were set off and thrown on to the pitch at a game between Hadjuk Split and Mallorca.

Ø April 2002 – Sevilla fans in the visitors’ enclosure were bombarded with lit flares by Real Betis fans.

Ø May 2002 – Police were pelted with lit flares after the Millwall vs Birmingham playoffs in England.

In all of the above instances, UEFA came down very hard on the clubs involved. All were heavily fined, and some clubs had their stadia closed.

The problem that I have with flares is that they can kill you. They are marine distress flares, designed to be seen for miles and miles if lit on a boat in the middle of the ocean. So, if one of them hit you, or fell on you, or was thrown at you, it could do you serious damage.

As Dermot points out in his article, when a flare is lit, there is a movement away from the flare. This in itself can cause problems on a steeply sloping terrace, people pushing to move away, people falling over etc

Another danger with flares is that the smoke generated can affect certain people, particularly older people and those who suffer from asthma. This is particularly true in an enclosed area, where the smoke has no immediate way of escape. Thus, far from creating a great atmosphere, as Dermot suggests, the flare, for the asthmatic, has the exact opposite effect.

But, of course, the greatest danger lies in the hands of the person who wields the damned thing. In this country, they tend to be used responsibly, but it only takes one eejit to put out an eye. What if stewards wade heavy-handedly into away fans to retrieve a flare and violence ensues? Can’t happen? Won’t happen? And the Titanic was unsinkable.

Basically, the use of the flare in Irish soccer is an attempt to emulate and recreate the atmosphere of Serie A matches in Italy. But whereas a host of flares igniting in the San Siro may look very impressive, the same image is not generated in Tolka or Richmond or Belfield. Dermot seems to think that they often look “awesome.” Unfortunately, it is a view not shared by all. Shania Twain even wrote a song about it. They put me in mind of big kids playing with sparklers at Hallowe’en. We are Irish. We have our own individuality – why must we appropriate football chants from England and Spain, and flares from Italy? Have we no imagination?

Atmosphere is generated by numbers, by nervous tension, by flags, scarves, hats, by singing and chanting, yes, even by those bloody irritating air-horns. Whereas flares might also add to the atmosphere, they are not a be-all and end-all in the atmosphere stakes. At times, I would suggest they even detract from the atmosphere. No need to bother singing – sure, we can always light a flare! The Shed End Invisibles would be better off saving up their €8 and buying a Flymo for Paul Marney senior.

In conclusion, therefore, I would argue that flares are a disaster waiting to happen and the rest of Europe has learned this through bitter experience. Does somebody have to die or be blinded or scarred for life before we accept what Europe has learned the hard way? Wise up, boys – don’t light up.

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