Former Liverpool FC manager Bill Shankly once famously said that football is more important than life or death. This sentiment, despite its extreme nature, is not an entirely alien concept to officials, fans and players of practically the entire range of competitive sports across the world.
Sports, in all its various forms and flavours, tap into our ancient tribal instincts, and provide an outlet for our deep seated primal urges. It comes as no surprise then, when these urges manifest themselves during emotionally charged moments in the sporting arena, from cries of rapture to screams of anger. However, some of these urges occasionally appear in much darker tones, often leading to physical altercations.
Evidence of this can be seen from as far back as 2,700 years ago (753 BC) in the chariot races of the Roman Empire. Riders, crews and horses were all fair game for the armed participants and spiked chariot wheels. Crowds would roar in delight as man and beast died brutal deaths in what was commonly referred to as the circus.
Some would argue that these barbaric practices were a reflection of a crueler and less civilized age, and have no place in the modern world. However, equally many would point out that these violent and tribalistic impulses have consistently reared their ugly heads over the subsequent two millennia – and they might just be right, judging by the voluminous accounts of violence and death in sporting events over the last century.
At times, these demonstrations of savage passion escalate outside of stadiums and arenas into everyday life, inflicting misery, pain and casualty to even the innocents. To make matters worse, it is not uncommon for violent participants to form groups such as the Italian Ultras and the South American Barra Brava to terrorize and stage violence against opposition supporters. Interestingly, the incidences of violence are significantly lower in pugilistic and martial arts sports, where participants make no pretensions about their intent to physically assault their opponents.
Another notable effect of these acts of aggression is the direct and indirect financial cost, which could run up to millions of dollars. And frequently, these damages are caused by fans celebrating their team’s victory! Quantifying these damages are sometimes difficult, as official estimates often only take into account incomplete property damages, excluding the cost of law enforcement, loss of revenues and wages, legal costs, and perhaps most importantly, the loss of lives. Our list of the top 10 most costly sports riots in history below does its best to take into account all of the factors listed above.
10. Super Bowl XLIII: Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Arizona Cardinals (2006) – $150,000 in Damages
As the denizens of the City of Bridges celebrated the Steelers’ 27-23 victory over the Cardinals for a historic sixth Super Bowl win, small pockets of gold and black-clad fans across the city began to take the revelries a little too far. In a somewhat surprising turn, the riots were scattered instead of focused in a single area. By dawn, law enforcement agencies had to respond to over 400 emergency calls and arrested over 100 people (including about 80 students) for offences such as fighting, arson, theft, vandalism, looting, breaking windows and the obligatory overturning of cars. City officials estimated that the night’s riot caused damages of at least $150,000 to city properties.
9. Super Bowl XXXIII: Denver Broncos vs. Atlanta Falcons (1999) – $160,000 in Damages
After the small, isolated disturbances following the Broncos first ever Super Bowl victory a year earlier, Denver’s police department came fully prepared to handle a similar situation – or so they thought. However, unlike the estimated 50 troublemakers in 1998, the situation in 1999 took everyone completely by surprise. Within minutes of the Broncos capturing their second consecutive Super Bowl following a 34-19 victory of the Falcons in Miami, approximately 1,000 drunk fans went on a rampage. They overturned several cars, broke windows and street signs, and even started bonfires in several locations in downtown Denver. In an effort to calm the frenzied fans down, police fired tear gas into the crowd. In the ensuing panic and with reduced visibility, several cars accidentally knocked down innocent bystanders, including two children. The crowd only dispersed upon the arrival of several dozen baton-wielding policemen in riot gear. The night’s mayhem led to 20 arrest, 40 hospitalizations and at least $160,000 in property damages.
8. World Series: Detroit Tigers vs. San Diego Padres (1984) – $200,000 in Damages
The Tigers’ victory over the Padres for their first World Series in 16 years sparked a wave of hysteria and an upsurge of violence in Detroit. It resulted in the death of one man, the rape of three women and the torching of dozens of properties and vehicles. Police were also assaulted with stones and bottles. Not even the Padres’ team bus was spared, as fans rocked it in a failed attempt to overturn it (though they did overturn a few cars). 34 rioters were arrested throughout the night. The city claimed that the episode cost the citizens $200,000.
7. NCAA Final Four: Michigan State vs. Duke University (1999) – $250,000 in Damages
The Spartans’ defeat at the hands of Duke (68-62) led to a riot involving about 5,000 students and outsiders near the campus apartment building. One car was overturned (obviously), and over thirty fires of various sizes were started all around the area by the rioters. Firefighters on the scene were pelted with rocks as they tried to put out the fires. 71 students and 61 outsiders were later arrested by police.
6. Stanley Cup Finals: Montreal Canadiens vs. Los Angeles Kings (1993) – $2.5 Million in Damages
After the Montreal Canadiens claimed the Stanley Cup following a 4-1 victory over the Kings, a number of their fans inexplicably went on a rampage near downtown Montreal. There were suggestions that the instigators were local gang members who intended to exploit the situation, but it was never proven. Cars were overturned and smashed (including 47 police cars), and dozens of commercial and office units were vandalized, looted and set on fire. 115 people were subsequently arrested for the riot. Police estimated that the rampage cost the city about $2.5 million.
5. Egyptian Premier League: Al-Masry vs. Al-Ahly (2012) – $3 Million in Damages
What started off as just another league match between powerhouse Al-Ahly and minnows Al-Masry transformed into a massacre of gargantuan proportions. The signs were already there during the match, with threatening banners and the presence of weapons. As soon as the match ended, with Al-Masry surprisingly winning 3-1, the clubs supporters immediately started to attack opposition fans. Brandishing long swords, knifes, clubs and other handheld weapons, a large number of Al-Masry supporters began slashing, stabbing and clubbing everyone in sight. The skeleton force of police inside the stadium stayed cleared of the attackers. To make matters worse, one of the exit gates had apparently been welded shut from the outside. Heavily armed policemen arrived by helicopter after a while. By then, 79 Al-Ahly fans had been killed, with over a 1000 more injured. The violence extended to areas outside the stadium for a while, before the attackers fled. No official figures have been released by the Egyptian government, but the carnage inside the stadium is unlike anything ever seen before at a sporting event. To date, 21 of the attackers have been sentenced to death, while another 52 are awaiting their sentencing. The Egyptian government declared the victims as martyrs, and compensated their surviving family members with SAR 100,000 ($27,000).
4. Stanley Cup: Boston Bruins vs. Vancouver Canucks (2011) – $4.8 Million in Damages
As the two teams faced off in game seven of the Stanley Cup Finals, the streets around the Rogers Arena in downtown Vancouver were packed with 155,000 fans, most of them watching the game on giant monitors around the stadium or TV screens in cafes, hotels and other public locations. A four-goal blitz in the first period along with an inspired performance by goalie Tim Thomas secured the Bruins’ victory. The crowd became restive, and the police, which had clearly underestimated its size, were left severely undermanned. The situation quickly deteriorated and within minutes the area became a riot zone. Vehicles, including patrol cars, were burned, stores were looted, public amenities and windows were smashed, and several of the rioters physically engaged the police. Riot police eventually used a combination of pepper spray, tear gas, police dogs and flash bombs to subdue the mob of Canucks fans. Assisted by photographic and video evidence provided by citizens, the Vancouver Police Department made 101 arrests. The cost of the riot, which saw 29 establishments and 15 vehicles damaged (some cars were overturned), is estimated to be upwards of CAD $5 million (approximately $4.8 million).
3. European Cup Final: Juventus vs. Liverpool (1985) – $8 Million in Damages
The European Cup final between Italian champions Juventus and English champions Liverpool was hosted by the Belgians at Heysel Stadium in Brussels. The stadium was selected despite failing a safety inspection earlier in the year, and over the objections of both teams. A little over an hour before the game started, a large group of Italian Ultras attacked a small group of Liverpool supporters outside the stadium. They were separated by the police, but the news quickly reached the ears of the travelling band of English supporters. Inside the stadium, a small group of Juventus supporters, separated by a thin line of policemen, heightened the already simmering atmosphere by taunting the Liverpool contingent, who reacted by stampeding towards them in large numbers. As the fighting escalated, unknown to both groups, the pressure began to suffocate, and subsequently, crush a large number of fans against the stadium wall. The wall suddenly crumbled, and all hell broke loose. Incredibly, fearing further violence, the game kicked off on schedule! Juventus went on to lift the trophy after a hard fought 1-0 victory over Liverpool.
39 Juventus fans lost their lives on that day, with another 600 injured. Surviving family members were awarded damages in excess of £5 million ($8 million). Fourteen Liverpool fans were subsequently convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to three-year jail terms.
2. 1992 NBA Finals: Chicago Bulls vs. Portland Trail Blazers (1992) – $10 Million in Damages
The Chicago Bulls, led by the incomparable Michael Jordan, scored their second consecutive NBA title after defeating the Portland Trail Blazers 97-93 for a 4-2 series win. Portland seemed headed for a series-tying victory after leading for the first three quarters, but a late Jordan-powered surge sealed the win for the Bulls. Outside of the Chicago Stadium, thousands of fans ran into the streets to celebrate the victory. Within minutes, however, the festive air took a sinister turn. Over the next several hours, hundreds of fans went berserk, with scores of them openly engaging the police with weapons. Multiple shots were heard by terrified residents as gangs of looters trawled the streets under the cover of darkness. Series MVP Jordan even went on air to urge fans to calm down. As reinforcements gradually began to arrive, the police regained control of the surrounding blocks, but the damage was already done. Amazingly, no one died, despite an injury toll of 95. However, damages to a couple dozen properties in the area – looted, burned and vandalized – were estimated to amount to around $10 million dollars.
1. FA Cup Semifinal: Liverpool vs. Nottingham Forrest (1989) – Incalculable
The semifinal match was played at Hillsborough Stadium, in Sheffield, England. 24,000 travelling Liverpool ticket holders were herded into two designated zones in the North and West Leppings Lane stands. The local police and stadium stewards were struggling to cope with the large Liverpool contingent and started to haphazardly channel the fans into the stadium. However, as the situation became progressively more chaotic, they inexplicably began to channel more fans into two already crowded pens.
To cut a long and horrifying story short, 96 people died in full view of thousands from either suffocation or being crushed from behind. Hillsborough is now synonymous with the darkest period in English football. The incident led to the complete redesign of all major football grounds in Britain, and subsequently across the continent. Hillsborough Stadium itself underwent a £22 million ($35 million) renovation after the incident.
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