Insanity comes in many different forms. From the overly committed to the eccentric to the most hyperbolic and outlandish people in civilized society, soccer fans represent the shades of grey around the globe as the world game offers a window into our humanity.
To many sports fans in the US, these active supporters are somewhat alien. The singing, the chanting, the flares, the passion, the color, the abuse, the ferocity and unwavering backing over 90 minutes – a lot of these attributes run contrary to what is seen in the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL.
Not to say that these games don’t have tremendous following for over a hundred years, there is plenty of history and meaning attached to those sports. But there is still a detachment, with franchises being bought, sold and moved like the stock market while soccer clubs in Europe and South America are institutions of identity as much as they are about the game.
To fans in Buenos Aires, Boca Juniors is part of the city’s DNA. Likewise Bayern Munich in Bavaria, Manchester United in the North West of England, Juventus in Turin and FC Barcelona in the Catalonia region of Spain. The latter example could not be a more stark illustration of nationhood linked intrinsically to a football club, with the Blaugrana purposely using the team as a vehicle to push the cause for independence from Spain.
Hooliganism is the ugly phrase so often raising its head when stereotypes of soccer fans are brought out into public discourse. Images of fans covering their faces with scarfs while throwing tear gas and flares is a dark undertone the sport has tried to tackle to varying degrees of success.
England has transformed from the horrors of Hillsborough in 1989, a devastating set of circumstances where 96 fans lost their lives due to over congestion in the standing end of the ground in Sheffield. Today, grounds in England are first class stadia where seating is mandatory and security presence is well represented while not being over-bearing.
Does this make English fans less crazy? Perhaps, but as was mentioned earlier, insanity comes in many different forms. The rabid passion for the game is as strong as it ever was, but there are many more of it’s kind. These are the 15 countries with the most insane soccer fans.
15. Bosnia and Herzegovina
Little known Eastern European outfit Bosnia and Herzegovina are a nation recovering from the Soviet Union break up as they look to forge a positive future on the globe and in the world of soccer. With stars like Miralem Pjanic, Edin Dzeko, Asmir Begovic and Muhamed Besic, the country has a host of established stars in the top leagues to ensure they will be a feature for some time to come.
Yet the supporters have a less glamorous status right now. After the Paris terror attacks last year, the traveling Bosnian fans interrupted the moment of silence in the Republic of Ireland, rioting in front of the Israeli National Team during the European Qualifying stage and advocating for the killing of Jews in Vienna. This puts Bosnia and Herzegovina at the toxic end of the insane spectrum, going above and beyond what is respectable in the realm of social standards in the Western World.
Sectarian violence is the underlying tone of disunity in Scottish football. The divide that separates the city of Glasgow is on religious grounds, with the Catholics and Protestants bickering, fighting and killing each other for thousands of years over their interpretation of the Christian faith. This plays out with the two soccer clubs represented by Glasgow, with Celtic emerging as the Catholic outfit while the Protestants align themselves with Rangers. Derby days are as fierce in this fixture as anywhere else on the globe.
The Old Firm as they are known bring out the worst in supporters, unleashing all of their vile hatred onto the pitch and in many confrontations, off it as well. Stadium disasters in Scotland occurred in 1902 and 1971, the latter seeing 66 people die and 200 injuries suffered. The passion and noise is tremendous, but history tells us it can spill over into ugly scenes.
Hooliganism has been so synonymous with England that they even made a movie about it in 2005 with Charlie Hunnam and Elijah Wood starring in Green Street Hooligans. The violence depicted in the film was more of a throwback to scenes of the 1980s where the country was languishing under Margaret Thatcher’s austerity measures and soccer was a means of uniting behind something greater than the individual. Going to a match became a call to arms for football firms, using the game to enforce martial law from London and further north.
The England National Team have arguably the most loyal and sizeable traveling supporter base in soccer. The coordinated chanting and songs draped in the red and white colors of the three lions make their attendance a must-see event during any World Cup or Euro tournament. They were on the end violent clashes with Russian ultras in France this summer, a turning of the tables in recent history where English supporters have been the aggressors.
France 2016 offered a window into a seedy underbelly of fueled up white men angry with the world and wanting to use the tournament and their country’s fixtures as a means of expressing their backwards world views. Not only was their calculated attack on England fans in their group stage match an own goal, but the subsequent rioting in the streets of the neutral country illustrated that this was always the end game for a percentage of conservative Russian ultras who view thuggish behavior as a badge of honor.
The troubling thought that Russia will host the World Cup in 2018 was not lost on anybody with those images spreading around the world, compounding the fears of a nation that has a poor history with helping fans enjoy the spectacle. During Russian domestic league matches, black players are regularly booed and receive monkey chanting while Neo-Nazis display banners to push the far-right activism beyond anything close to acceptable. In many ways, the term “insane” does not do justice to this cohort of Russian soccer fans.
Speak to many French football observers and their interpretation of an A-typical supporter is a polite, well-mannered fan that sits quietly and applauds where necessary. They do not tend to travel in packs of thousands for the National Team or at club level, tending to stick with their domestic tribes for the most part. But that scuffle that broke out during the Euros between England and Russian fans was instigated by a group of French ultras, showing that behind the passion and love of the game is a group that takes matters into their own hands.
The region of Marseille hosts the gold standard for unruly and overzealous supporters in France by a country mile. The banners, tifos, singing and unwavering love for their football team is something to behold. Strong rivalries have been formed down the decades with Paris Saint-Germain and Lyon, contrasting the notion of a French football society jaded and too relaxed to go over the top.
Domestic football derbies are always the best indication of how rabid and insane a collective soccer community is. By this measure, the Olympiacos vs. PAOK rivalry stands up there with the fiercest of them all. The game illustrates the split between the cities of Piraeus and Thessaloniki, with a ring of fire often welcoming the players when they walk onto the ground. The pyrotechnics are just the tip of the iceberg however, with the banners, singing, rioting and fighting escalating to sometimes devastating consequences.
One British newspaper described the scenes from one PAOK vs. Olympiacos derby as the fans treating the turf on the field like their personal ashtray, throwing flares onto the pitch with no thought of the well-being of their own players! The nation shocked the world in 2004 when they won the European Championship, defeating host nation Portugal in the Final. It left Cristiano Ronaldo in tears, but gave a nation usually accustomed to second best a moment in the sunshine.
As a nation, Ukraine have had a rough ride fighting for survival against the looming shadow of Russia’s might throughout North Eastern Europe. When Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crashed on their soil, killing 283 passengers and 15 crew members, the tension between the two countries threatened to spill over into civil war. The threat has always been there, it is only the will of either side to act on it that determines the amount of violence spilling onto the streets.
So what does this have to do with their soccer supporters? During the Euro 2016 championships, Ukraine fans were pictured with swastika tattoos before embarking in clashes with German and Poland groups amid their short stay at the tournament. The social and political turmoil has also directly affected their domestic game, with giants FC Shakhtar Donetsk playing away from their home city on enemy territory in Kyiv. Think of this as the New York Yankees playing at Fenway Park.
Orange is not just the color present at the RNC Convention this US election. The Holland/Netherlands national football outfit are known by many different aliases, such as the Oranje, Clockwork Orange or The Flying Dutchmen as the traveling fans bath themselves in the bright color and provide a lot of entertainment. Their soccer is synonymous with “total football” of the Johan Cruyff school – masterminding a versatile philosophy in players during the 1970s that continues to inspire generations today.
On a national level, they have never won a major tournament and because of this, enjoy a fierce rivalry with near neighbors Germany. On a domestic front, the Ajax Amsterdam vs. Feyenoord matches are on a different level, exhibiting the divide between two major cities with a raft of rioting, fighting, chants, flares – the whole package. The Dutch might have a reputation for being cold, calculated marijuana smokers riding bikes along rivers, but they haven’t attended a local football game.
How insane are Croatian soccer fans? As they were leading 2-1 against the Czech Republic at this summer’s Euro 2016 championships in France, the supporters lit flares and threw them onto the field in protest against their manager and the national federation. They saw coach Ante Cacic as a puppet for the organization and wanted to use the important fixture to make their point heard loud and clear.
The subsequent stoppage in play killed the momentum of Croatia at the time and when the game eventually restarted, the Czechs managed to score an equalizer to snatch a 2-2 result from the jaws of defeat. This demonstrated how stubborn and ferocious the Croatian fans can be, and that is just the national team! The Dinamo Zagreb vs. Hajduk Split games, known as The eternal derby, is another matter altogether. Flares are part and parcel of the experience as they extol the colors of the nation in huge red and white blocks around the grandstands. For a modestly-sized country in Europe, they have made their mark in the soccer world for good and bad.
Across the 2015/16 Bundesliga season, the competition of the domestic soccer championship in Germany, the average attendance of the entire league of 18 teams came to 43,300 per game. This includes over 81,000 at Borussia Dortmund, 75,000 at Bayern Munich and 61,300 at FC Schalke 04 flooding through the gates ever fortnight to make German soccer one of the premium products in world sport period.
Aside from the pure numbers alone, the manner in which they get behind their clubs is something else. The synchronized singing, dancing and ultras showing off a barrage of tifos makes for an electrifying atmosphere for every Bundesliga match. Few other leagues can match the unwavering support, making the journeys a pilgrimage to the hallowed turf. The most iconic derby in the country is between local outfits Borussia Dortmund and FC Schalke 04, often fighting for a UEFA Champions League position in the top tier of the Bundesliga.
Few entertainment spectacles could be labeled as a health hazard, yet Serbian football has to be one of those that fit the category. Described as having a “culture of violence” spread systematically throughout the country and it’s relationship to soccer, underground criminal elements rear their ugly heads consistently over the past two decades to take advantage of lax local regulations for attending matches. Fans use soccer as a means of expressing far right activist views through manipulation and confrontation to intimidate anyone who doesn’t adhere and fall in line.
Hooligan groups are at their worst in the city of Belgrade, where clubs Partizan and Red Star create a fortress of hatred and toxicity. The most iconic fixture in the Balkans between those clubs has seen army helicopters halting events as late as February 2016, transitioning from a sporting event to an uncivil war of epic proportions. Without doubt Serbian soccer fans are among the most dangerous, reckless and unpredictable groups of supporters on the planet.
Brazil and soccer are inseparable. The 5-time World Cup champions go beyond obsession when it comes to their football passion, exhibiting degrees of lust and despair the likes of which are rarely seen even in South America. The samba kings make the sport iconic for their freestyle expressionism, turning raw talent on the streets of Rio and Sao Paulo into world class athletes earning millions on the biggest stages of Europe. From Pele in the 1960s and 70s, Ronaldo and Rivaldo in the 90s, Ronaldinho in the 2000s and Neymar Jr. today, generations of Canarinho fans have been spoilt with the best naturally gifted players spanning decades.
A humiliating 7-1 Semi Final defeat to Germany by their national team at the Maracana Stadium in 2014 was the lowest of low points. Tears were everywhere the camera panned to that fateful night, demonstrating that the loss was a national failure as much as a single soccer result. Death and violence is a dark side that emerges around Campeonato Brasileiro Serie A matches, with rivalries between giants Sao Paulo, Flamengo, Corinthians and Palmeiras spilling over and blending in with rampant street crime. Brazil do make the beautiful game what it is, but there is an ugly flipside that comes out from time to time.
Vamos vamos Argentina! Country of two FIFA World Cup victories, the South American football powerhouse Argentina lives and breathes soccer as vividly as another of it’s counterparts on the planet. While The White and Sky Blue La Albiceleste National Team receives passionate support on their travels to major tournaments, it is the domestic game where the insanity is turned up to 11 on the decimeter.
The Superclasico is the single fixture that stops the nation – the bitter rivalry between Buenos Aires clubs Boca Juniors and River Plate. Their battles, going back as far as the early 20th Century, have portrayed the best and worst of soccer through riots, the crushing deaths of 71 people in 1968 to playing off for the championship. Without Argentina, soccer would be far poorer for it as the noise and energy they produce is on par with any other supporter groups. They also happened to produce two handy players in their own right, Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi.
4-time FIFA World Cup champions are synonymous with the sport of soccer. Alongside pasta, pizza, Giro bikes and a litany of other cultural stereotypes one could imagine, it is an integral ingredient to their heritage as a people. The Azzurri combine deep divisions and hatred on a domestic front with compete harmony and unity on the international side of the equation, with the Azzurri punching above their weight most competitions. A single viewing of the players singing the national anthem is testimony to how they fight together on the field and demonstrate passion beyond all measure.
But like any activity that is followed to insanity, there is a huge downside to the levels of crazy fans will go to. Aside from political and systematic rorting and corruption with drugs and payments via shady kingpin figures, racism is a problem the country cannot shake around its soccer fields. Italian striker Mario Balotelli, a player of African descent, has been regularly subjected to monkey chanting and banana throwing during Serie A matches. Roma’s local rivals Lazio have a reputation for being followed by far right activist groups and these incidents damage a love for soccer that should be celebrated unapologetically.
Turkish fans take supporting their soccer teams to the extreme, making them well worthy of hosting the most insane fans anywhere in the world. One particular video went viral during the Euro 2016 championships when a wife pranked her husband while he was watching the national side against Croatia. As she quietly changed the channel and turned off the television with a rogue remote control, the hubby ran out of patience with the screen and progressed to smash the TV, laptop and anything else he could get his hands on!
That hilarious video though is barely the tip of the iceberg. Given all of the sociopolitical turmoil the country faces, it is any wonder the Istanbul derby between Fenerbahce and Galatasaray is one of the best supported and most intense spectacles in soccer. In the 1995-96 season, Scottish manager Graeme Souness planted a Galatasaray flag in the middle of the pitch after their victory over the bitter rivals. The ensuing chaos and manic scenes told it’s own story – breaking seats, fireworks, street rioting – just another Turkish soccer derby.