By Alexander Apostolides on September 10, 2010

Hooliganism and the birth of Agia Sofia Church

I used to think that hooliganism, especially in the form exhibited in Cyprus (political connections of fans with teams and parties), was a 20th century phenomenon. I can now say that hooliganism and political connections in sport are as old as sports themselves, since they all started from the Roman Empire.

The chariot races were divided usually in four factions: Blues (Vénetoi) and the Greens (Prásinoi) had come to overshadow the other two factions of the Whites (Leukoí) and Reds (Roúsioi). These factions began operating as teams, collaborating to deny others victory. By the Byzantine period the Green and the Blues began to look like clubs, and then started to have violent gangs while also working like political parties. Their power gradually extended outside the sport arena and into the political sphere, with Emperors or aspiring Emperors being supported (and giving patronage and support to) one of the two factions. The Emperors tolerated and even tacitly supported the growth of the two factions as centres of political and factional allegiance above and beyond the realm of sports, as they could ask their faction to support them in various political crises that erupted from time to time.

The results for the empire were disastrous. Justinian I, perhaps the greatest Byzantine emperor, decided that although he was once a fanatic supporter of the blues he would try and curb the violent hooliganism that occurred during chariot races. In 535 this decision left the centre of Constantinople burned to the ground, with tens of thousands of citizens killed.

On January 10th 532 the two groups started fighting after a race; there were many injuries and some deaths. The Emperor sent in the troops to calm the situation, and they arrested the ringleaders on both sides. Some were hanged but one Green and one blue escaped, and a mob of both Green and blues (who had up to that time, killed each other in street violence) surrounded them, asking for their pardon from the Emperor, who ignored them.

Three days later at the next chariot races the Emperor was faced with 30,000 blues and greens all shouting “NIKA (WIN)” in defiance to the imperial rule. Riots erupted from the stadium (hippodrome) and spread in the whole city by the angry crowd, who released prisoners, looted and burned churches, including the original Agia Sofia Church. In addition the organised mob, now united against the forces of authority, demanded an end to the harsh taxation and the death of the chief taxman of the empire, and went as far as electing a rival emperor. Justinian responded by bribing some of the blues into submission, as well as sending the army, who butchered the 30,000 crowd to a man.

As a result of the riots the capital of the greatest empire was a burned shell. Justinian, in an attempt to bring the empire to its former glory, constructed the Agia Sofia church as it stands today, on top of the ruins of the riots.

One wonders if our tolerance of hooliganism can lead to such extreme results. It is certainly plausible that the economic crisis increases the need to belong in extreme groups that aim to be violent, and that the political parties, and even the government, is far too comfortable with the football executives than is considered healthy. I just wish that the Nika riots are a historical warning towards appeasement with the violent thugs who ruin sports.

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