With an emphasis on controlled aggression, community solidarity and the defeat of an opponent, team sport has been referred to as a “peaceful substitute for war.” Unfortunately, however, even in the modern world it seems that not everyone got the “peaceful” part of the comparison. Over the years, there have been various occasions when sporting events have degenerated into violent battles for control and dominance between opposing fans, or between fans and police. Stampedes and cases of supporters being crushed have also been all too common.
There are many reasons why sporting events have turned violent. Often, they provide a symbol or focus for political issues – such as the anti-apartheid incidents that took place on the 1981 South African Rugby Union tour of New Zealand. In other instances, they offer a convenient outlet for social unrest – like the Nika riots that broke out after a chariot race in Constantinople in AD 532, which led to a violent revolt. In any case, though, they serve as reminders that peacefully watching a game can turn into a violent event with devastating speed. Here are the 10 worst sports riots of all time.
10. Detroit World Series Riots (USA) – 1984
1984 was the year that burned Detroit into the nation’s consciousness as a byword for sporting violence. The Detroit Tigers’ World Series victory over the San Diego Padres set off a festival of destruction as ecstatic fans devastated the city in celebration. Their rioting led to at least one recorded death and dozens of injuries, while private property was also destroyed and fires raged. Thirty-four people were arrested.
The iconic photo above shows a jubilant fan holding up a World Series pennant in front of a destroyed symbol of authority – a torched, upside-down police car. This sporting catastrophe was, memorably, likely the first “victory riot” recorded in the US – that is, the first time the supporters of a team that won a major event celebrated in such an ugly and destructive fashion.
9. Vancouver Stanley Cup Riot (Canada) – 2011
On June 15, 2011, all hell broke loose in downtown Vancouver, British Columbia. It was game seven of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final. The Boston Bruins had just comfortably beaten hometown favorites the Vancouver Canucks 4-0 to claim the title. But that was just the beginning.
Trouble started brewing towards the end of the game. City officials had set up a two-block fan zone, with two giant viewing screens on Georgia Street. At around 7:45pm, fans started throwing bottles and other projectiles at the screens. Bruins flags and Canucks jerseys were set on fire, cars were flipped over, and some fans were heard chanting, “Let’s go riot, let’s go riot.”
In the ensuing madness, fifteen vehicles were torched, including two police cars; shops were smashed in and looted; and nine police officers were injured. One officer required 14 stitches to repair the damage a brick had done to his head. Police seized a number of weapons and blamed the chaos on opportunistic “anarchists and criminals” hiding behind the rampaging mob.
In the end, as many as 140 people were injured – with least four stabbed – and 117 arrests were made. Still, 15,000 volunteers hit the streets as part of a clean-up operation, desperate to show the world that “not all Canuck fans are like that.”
8. Buenos Aires (Argentina) – 2007
Argentina has a reputation for outbreaks of macho soccer hooliganism. And in the summer of 2007, at the Nueva Chicago Stadium in Buenos Aires, the second leg of a promotion/relegation playoff game between the teams Tigre and Nueva Chicago erupted into one of the bloodiest riots in sporting history.
Leading 3-1 on aggregate (and 2-1 in the game), Tigre was awarded a penalty in injury time. Incensed, Nueva Chicago supporters ended the game early by storming the pitch, covering the field like a swarm of ants. Fans attacked each other with rocks and metal pipes, and the brawl that erupted even spilled out into rush hour traffic. In the end, the rioting caused the death of one supporter and injured another 41. Seventy-eight people were arrested.
7. Lima Soccer Riot (Peru) – 1964
The 1964 Tokyo Olympics qualifier game between Peru and Argentina, held at the Estadio Nacional in Lima, Peru, was the scene of a violent sporting tragedy when a fatal overreaction by the authorities led to the deaths of over 300 soccer supporters.
In the last few minutes of play, Peru managed to equalize against Argentina, putting them in a position to go through to the Olympics, but the goal was disallowed. A Peruvian fan ran onto the pitch to argue with the referee, but the police stationed at the game held him down while six of them began to beat him.
The crowd became furious and surged forward. Tear gas canisters were fired in response, which caused a panicked stampede for the exits. In the resulting chaos, 318 supporters lost their lives, many due to asphyxiation, and over 500 were injured. In this case, police brutality proved even more deadly than mob violence.
6. Montreal Stanley Cup Riot (Canada) – 1993
Another disreputable “victory riot” occurred at the conclusion of the 1993 Stanley Cup Finals in Montreal, Canada, when home team the Montreal Canadians claimed their twenty-fourth Stanley Cup title. Fans poured out into Ste. Catherine Street in downtown Montreal, looting and rioting with complete abandon. Due to the extent of the looting, some even speculated that the riots had been staged as a cover for simple theft.
This Montreal celebration ended up causing over $2.5 million of damage and injuring 168 people. The police were especially badly affected: 47 cars were damaged or destroyed and 49 officers suffered injuries.
5. Cleveland Indians vs. Texas Rangers (USA) – 1974
This disaster was caused by a Cleveland Indians promotion at Cleveland Stadium that went very wrong, on June 4, 1974. In an effort to increase demand and audiences at a baseball game between the Indians and the Texas Rangers, organizers offered fans cups of beer for a mere ten cents a cup (down from 65c). Naturally, this led to many fans becoming uncontrollably drunk as the game wore on.
Early in the game, play was interrupted when streakers crossed the field of play, while a hail of hotdogs and at least one empty drinks container was aimed the way of Ranger players. In the ninth inning, after the Indians had drawn level, the Texas Rangers ran out to protect outfielder Jeff Burroughs from a rowdy fan, with Burroughs actually slipping when he attempted to confront the fan himself. In response, some of the drunkest members of the crowd surged on to the field wielding chains and knives.
Seeing that their rivals might be in danger of being killed, Cleveland manager Ken Aspromonte ordered his own players to grab bats and protect the Rangers. Both teams beat a hasty retreat into their dressing rooms, while fans threw objects such as batteries, rocks, cups and folding chairs. The game was declared a forfeit when umpire crew chief Nestor Chylak realized that getting the drunk, angry fans under control was an impossible task. Injured in the attack, Chylak called the fans “uncontrollable beasts.”
4. Heysel Stadium Disaster (Belgium) – 1985
Heysel is a name that helped create the image of the violent, thuggish English soccer hooligan in the minds of the European public. The 1985 European cup final between Italy’s Juventus and England’s Liverpool FC resulted in 39 deaths and hundreds of injuries, making it one of the bloodiest days for soccer in the 1980s – or indeed, any other decade.
The riot began an hour before the game, when a big group of Liverpool supporters managed to breach the barrier between them and a group of Juventus fans and rushed across the terraces towards them. The Italian supporters panicked and tried to escape. However, the swarming fans ended up trampling people who had been sitting down and were pressed against the perimeter wall, which collapsed under their collective weight.
The resulting outrage led to English football clubs being banned from all European competitions for a period of five years, and there were 27 arrests for manslaughter.
3. Accra Sports Stadium Disaster (Ghana) – 2001
This disaster occurred at the Accra Sports Stadium, Ghana, on May 9, 2001, during a game between two of the country’s most successful soccer teams, Accra Hearts of Oak Sporting Club and Asante Kotoko. In response to a late Hearts of Oak victory, some supporters began to tear up seats and throw plastic bottles onto the pitch.
In response, the police fired several canisters of tear gas into the crowd, which prompted a rush for the exits. Unfortunately, some of the doors were locked, and in the ensuing chaos a total of 127 fans were crushed to death. As with the Lima disaster, this bloody event seems to have been the result of overzealous policing, a panicking crowd, and poor planning.
It may have been less of a “riot” and more of a “stampede,” but still, it was one of the worst events in soccer history, even eclipsing the more famous Hillsborough disaster in terms of numbers who died by asphyxiation.
2. Kayseri Atatürk Stadium (Turkey) – 1967
This was a soccer riot that turned into something more like a full-blown gang battle. The game between Kayserispor and Sivasspor started off tense and then rapidly took a turn for the worst, after rock throwing took place between supporters of the rival teams.
Seeking an escape, Sivas supporters made for the exits and the field but were turned back from the pitch by police, creating a crush against the fencing in front of the terrace. Meanwhile, the rioting supporters in the terraces were involved in a battle in which weapons such as guns and knives were used.
Players from both teams were forced to flee to the safety of their changing rooms, and the referee declared the game abandoned. However, this didn’t stop the Sivas supporters who, en masse, went on a rampage through Kayseri, destroying 60 private cars and the city’s gymnasium. The result of the incident was over 600 injuries – and for a crowd of only 21,000, that’s a heck of lot of bloodshed.
1. Port Said Riots (Egypt) – 2012
Apart from this being one of the bloodiest entries on this list, the events surrounding the Port Said soccer game between Al-Masry and Al-Ahly on February 1, 2012 were also the most recent. The game began on an ominous note, with supporters of Al-Masry appearing on the pitch and delaying the kick-off by thirty minutes. Then the situation only got worse as goals mounted up for Al-Masry, with fans running across the field after every successful shot.
At the conclusion of the game, the whole stadium erupted, with the victorious Al-Masry fans viciously attacking their rivals using swords, knives, fireworks and blunt objects. The resulting scene has been called a “massacre”: 79 people were killed and another 1,000 were injured – a figure that makes the “victory riots” in America and Canada seem like small potatoes.
The reluctance of the police to stop the attackers, together with the fact that many doors of the stadium were locked, has led to conspiracy theories, suggesting that the massacre was a deliberate plan by the Egyptian government. However, if there’s one thing we’ve learned from this list, it’s that violent supporters, bad management and apathetic authorities can easily lead to deaths at sporting events – purely by accident, and with no planning necessary.
Bonus: Aggieville Riots (USA) – 1986
The 1986 Aggieville riots in Kansas illustrated that sporting events, rowdy fans and large amounts of alcohol can often lead to trouble. Kansas State University’s 29-12 victory over Kansas University led to crowds of thousands of supporters running through the streets, setting light to cars and smashing store windows.
The damage from the evening included at least 20-25 businesses with broken windows, while a 19-year-old was sent to hospital after being struck with a blunt object. One person also had their car rolled over and set ablaze. In total there were 18 arrests.