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Low's new Germany comes at a price

 By Simon Kuper

Is football facing a new age of stadium terrorism after Paris attacks?

PARIS -- I am writing minutes after Germany-Holland was cancelled in Hanover on Tuesday over fears of a planned terrorist attack inside the stadium. This might be a new age of stadium terrorism. If so, I witnessed the start of it four days ago in Paris.

I left home for the France-Germany game on what felt like a normal Friday evening. I live in Paris and am a regular at the Stade de France. But about 20 minutes into that match, we heard a loud explosion that seemed to come from just outside the stadium. Only now do we know that this was the opening salvo of the Paris attacks. Many spectators actually cheered the explosion, thinking it was fireworks of the sort you often hear at French games. I thought it was too loud for that. Still, the game continued happily, and from my seat in the press I then tweeted the last thought I would have about soccer that evening:

A couple of minutes later came a second explosion, again from outside the stadium. This time the ground underneath me shook.

I tweeted:

But then I thought: Quite likely these were innocent bangs, perhaps just the kind of noise-makers that rowdy French fans enjoy. Someone on Twitter called me a "scaremonger". Maybe he's right, I thought. By this time I had stopped watching the match, and was sitting in the stands searching the Internet for news. For an agonizingly long period, there wasn't any. Not many reporters hang out in the deserted streets outside the Stade de France. Only about 20 minutes after the first explosion did I find the first news item on a French website:

Then, from a Dutch journalist in Paris, Stefan de Vries (who had been texted by a friend from a cafe under fire), I got the first report of the Paris shootings.

Meanwhile, on the field, France was still playing soccer against Germany. Quite understandably, the authorities didn't want to stop the game and send 75,000 people out into a city under attack. Even after the two explosions, French fans did the wave. Later France scored two goals, and both times the stadium erupted with joy. Well into the second half, most fans still seemed unaware of the attacks underway in Paris. I had my laptop open and was following the gruesome reports coming in. 

I hope this account conveys something of the confusion all of us in Paris felt on Friday night. Four days later, we are still only gradually working out what happened. For me, one thing stands out: The terrorists meant to blow themselves up inside the stadium, on prime-time TV, killing vast numbers of spectators. This time they failed. But the menace of stadium terrorism isn't going to go away. On Tuesday, in Hanover, after the Germany vs. Netherlands game was called off, police said they believed there was a "concrete terror threat" at the stadium. 

The first modern outbreak of sporting terrorism came at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Aided by recent improvements in satellite technology, hundreds of millions of people worldwide followed the hostage-taking of members of the Israeli Olympic team by Palestinian terrorists. Eleven Israelis were killed. Terrorists everywhere realized that sport could get them onto prime time.

Nowadays security goes into overdrive around every big international soccer event. So far so good, but we had several close calls even before Paris and Hanover. The biggest one that didn't happen was in France too. A fortnight before the country hosted the World Cup in 1998, European police rolled up a terrorist plot against the tournament, arresting about 100 people in seven countries. Terrorism was then considered something of a distant threat, and the episode was soon forgotten. However, it is detailed in the curiously-ignored book "Terror on the Pitch" by Adam Robinson (the pen name of a journalist based in the Middle East). Quoting letters detailing the plot sent by members of the Algerian Armed Islamic Group (AIG), Robinson says they meant to strike at the England-Tunisia game on June 15, 1998.

The terrorists, according to the book, planned to infiltrate the Marseille stadium, attacking the English players and the spectators in the stands. Their colleagues were then to burst into the U.S. team's hotel and harm the players. Others were supposed to crash a plane into the nuclear power station near the French town of Poitiers, causing meltdown. It would have been a European Sept. 11. The plot was backed by Osama bin Laden, head of Al Qaeda.

Another bin Laden biographer, Yossef Bodansky, says one reason that Al Qaeda bombed the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998, killing 224 people, was "the failure of the primary operation, an attack on the soccer World Cup."

Algeria's GIA tried again for Euro 2000 according to Robinson's book. France's secret services discovered that the Algerian Adel Mechat -- in jail for his role in plotting against the '98 World Cup -- was phoning Dutch numbers from his prison cell, planning an attack on the European championship in the Netherlands and Belgium.

Then, just before Euro 2004 kicked off in Portugal, three violent Dutch Islamists were arrested there. They were suspected of planning to attack the Portuguese prime minister Jose Manuel Barroso and other dignitaries. Portugal deported the planners. Hardly anybody noticed.

At the Stade de France last Friday night, we were saved by security officials. Fifteen minutes into the game, a man with a ticket tried to get into the stadium. A security official searched him, and noticed the man was wearing a suicide vest. At that point the man ran away and then detonated the vest. His two colleagues also blew themselves up near the Stade de France, apparently killing "only" one other person. 

What ISIS had intended as the dramatic opening of Friday night's coordinated attacks -- mass carnage in the stadium, probably followed by a fatal mass stampede for the exits live on prime-time TV -- never happened. Yet it would be wrong to say that the stadium attacks failed. The explosion drew many police from Paris to the stadium 5 kilometers out of town. That made things easier for the shooters in central Paris.

Terrorism is made for TV, but the attack on the Stade de France wasn't simply a PR move. ISIS loathes multiculturalism. Given that, some suggest they are against European soccer. After all, it is a bastion of multiculturalism where Muslim and non-Muslim players are teammates and countless Muslims are fans, explains Andres Martinez, a former editor at the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times, on Zocalo Public Square, a Los Angeles-based "ideas exchange" affiliated with Arizona State University's Cronkite School of Journalism. ISIS has said it doesn't want any so-called "gray zones" in which Muslims and non-Muslims mix happily, and European soccer is precisely such a gray zone for players and fans alike. 

Until 9:20 p.m. Paris time last Friday evening, France was looking forward to Euro 2016. Now many French people, especially government officials, are dreading it. The stadiums will feel like armed camps. Getting to your seat will be a nightmare. Some of us will be sitting in the stadium wondering if anything is about to happen. 

Simon Kuper is a contributor to ESPN FC and co-author, with Stefan Szymanski, of Soccernomics.


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