External Affairs

Why Terrorists Target Sporting Events

Attacks like the one on German football club Borussia Dortmund earlier this month target a space where society and the state interact in an extraordinary manner.

Police with the Borussia Dortmund team bus after an explosion near their hotel before a game. Credit: Reuters/Kai Pfaffenbach Livepic

Police with the Borussia Dortmund team bus after an explosion near their hotel before a game. Credit: Reuters/Kai Pfaffenbach

In late 2015, Paris was hit by a series of attacks. It all started outside the national football stadium in Saint Denis and ended with the infamous standoff at the Bataclan Theatre. In December 2016, a football stadium in Istanbul was witness to a horrific car explosion. And on April 11 this year, the team bus of Borussia Dortmund (a German football club) faced a series of controlled explosions just as it left the team hotel, injuring one player. While different terror groups later openly claimed the first two, the same is expected for the last one.

Attacks on the sporting world aren’t uncommon, but they do hold special significance. Sporting history has been peppered with attacks of a similar kind – be it the 1972 Munich massacre, the 2002 blasts outside the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Spain, the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Pakistan in 2009 or the targeted explosions mentioned in recent years.

Breeding ground for conflict

Sport has often been a unique breeding ground for conflict. In his book MorboPhil Ball outlines the interlinked development of politics and football in Spain. The chaotic relationship between the two was on display during the bombing outside the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Spain in 2002. The Basque nationalist group ETA claimed responsibility for the bombing which occurred ahead of a match between Real Madrid and Barcelona, two of the most followed football clubs in the world, in a bid to garner attention towards their cause – Basque autonomy and eventual independence. The explosions in Istanbul were similarly claimed by the Kurdish Freedom Falcons, wanting to propagate their cause.

Unusual – but not uncommon – targets, any attack on sporting events or symbols has one big agenda – to send a message that can be heard by a vast number of people. Take, for instance, the attack on Israeli athletes during the 1972 Munich Olympics. Eleven Israeli sportspersons were kidnapped and eventually killed by the Palestinian group Black September. The Olympics, the biggest global sporting event, were being watched on TV and heard on radios around the world. Through their attack, Black September broadcast their message at a large group, loud and clear. The incident would subsequently bring renewed focus on the Israel-Palestine issue.

Arguably, any terror attack seeks to serve the same purpose. What, then, is unique about attacks on sporting events and venues? Attacks on such events serve as the meeting point of human emotions, state control and the demands of those behind the assault. Nowhere else do these aspects come together in such perfect (dis)harmony.

Of the people

Fans of Pakistan's cricket team (L) and India's (R) cheer in the stands before Pakistan's Cricket World Cup match against India in Adelaide, February 15, 2015. Credit: Reuters

Fans of Pakistan’s cricket team (L) and India’s (R) cheer in the stands before Pakistan’s Cricket World Cup match against India in Adelaide, February 15, 2015. Credit: Reuters

Capturing popular imagination, sports have been a tipping point for human emotions. Sports have often served as a unifying factor, bringing together people from various backgrounds. Nationalities have been created and expressed through cricket in India, football in England or baseball in Cuba. The stadium becomes a place where you can safely abandon your identity and choose a new one (if you so wish), and enjoy a game with others, known and unknown, like you. Teams and their fans develop their own cultures. Flags, songs, symbols etc. all become a part of daily life. More often than not, regional clubs become a way of preserving local practices, becoming a representative of a geographic identity rather than only remaining a sporting club. FC Barcelona, which is symbolised by the words “Més que un club (More than just a club)”, is representative of how people use sport to preserve their culture. Hailing from Catalonia in Spain, the club is a culmination of feelings toward the Spanish state. The long drawn demand for Catalan independence is illustrated whenever FC Barcelona takes to the field. It is more than just a club because people devote their whole lives to it, often in the name Catalonian nationalism

However, the nature of support is not free of paradoxes. As uniting as the stadium is, sport has also been a dividing factor among people. The riveting spectacle is an unlikely addition to numerous social phenomena. For example, in Scotland, the rivalry between the two football clubs – Celtics and Rangers – has been a part of national folklore. But the rivalry is embedded in religious history as well. Catholics make up the larger numbers of supporters of the Celtics, while Protestants are the dominant section of the Rangers’ support. The culture thus created is a distinctive mix of religious rivalry dating back to the time of the Reformation. The subject of the religious rivalry has remained constant through the years, but the object often expresses itself through the game.

Of the state

Real Madrid, used as a nation-building tool in General Franco’s Spain. Credit: Reuters

Real Madrid, used as a nation-building tool in General Franco’s Spain. Credit: Reuters

Sport has also served as a tool of nation-building. Time and again, governments have used sports to create stronger nation-states, sometimes failing miserably. The communist government of the erstwhile USSR created football clubs under the banner of the state, wanting to make them agents of propaganda. Similarly, the Argentine military junta wanted to control the fate of the Argentine football team. The Argentinian coup d’etat was carried out in 1976 and the military men wanted the support of the people. Argentina spared no expense when hosting the football World Cup in 1978, which the home team would go on to win. The win wasn’t necessarily because of the investment, but the rumours swirling around their comfortable 6-0 victory over Peru in a crucial match evoked theories of match-fixing. In an effort to strengthen their control, the state tried its best to capitalise on the fervour that followed.

In Brazil, the celebrated footballer Pelé was appointed sports minister in 1995, with then President Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s approval ratings skyrocketing as a result. The infamous Spanish dictator General Francisco Franco, used the multi-sport club Real Madrid to display the grandeur of his reign. He used the club to gain legitimacy in Spain and supremacy in Europe, building a huge following of Franco loyalists. He also used football as part of his strategy to quell the demands for Catalan and Basque nationalism, both of which had been rife in the civil war of the 1930s.

The attack in Dortmund is at yet unclaimed. Nobody knows who did it, but the world isn’t short on theories. Prosecutors claim that the letters found near the site of the explosions were a ploy used by the far-right in Germany to induce more hate against Muslims. Another theory suggests that the attack may have had a financial motive and there may have been a bet on the club’s shares failing, but all these claims are unfounded as of now.

When anyone causes harm to a sporting symbol, he or she is taking a direct aim at the identity that it is based on. The Munich attacks weren’t just an attack emanating out of the Israel-Palestine conflict; they were an attack on the notion of a ‘united’ world that is the base of the Olympics. The Olympics are considered a sporting arena where nations come together in search of peace, and that peace was heavily disrupted.

Sport is an intersection of emotions, identities and demands. In attacking a sporting arena, a space is targeted where society and the state interact in an extraordinary manner. The message being sent out is not just attack on the establishment, but also an attack on the unique culture created around it.

Mridul Kataria is a student of history at Ramjas College and a former intern at The Wire.