Tunisia: A season marred by violence

Tunisian policemen stand guard as fans throw flares during February's match between Esperance and Club Africain
Tunisian policemen stand guard as fans throw flares during February's match between Esperance and Club Africain

On Monday 18 June England face Tunisia as both nations open their 2018 World Cup campaigns.

Despite a domestic season marred by violence Tunisian officials are confident the problems will not follow the team to Russia.

As well as clashes before during and after league matches, hundreds of fans invaded the pitch in March to celebrate a 1-0 win for Tunisia over Costa Rica in a friendly in the French city of Nice.

Mark Lomas and Tunisia-based journalist Souhail Khmira look at the problems that have marred the 2017-2018 season:

Esperance won a 28th Tunisian league title on 8 April but none of their fans were on hand to help them celebrate their achievement.

The Tunis-based side are one of eight top-flight teams who are playing behind closed doors until the end of the season because of crowd violence.

As well as the empty stadia the Tunisia Football Federation (FTF) has handed out several hefty financial sanctions this season.

The top four in the 14-team league - two-time African champions Esperance, Club Africain and Etoile du Sahel (both former continental champions) and three-time Confederation Cup winners CS Sfaxien all ended the season without any supporters.

On an almost weekly basis fights break out at grounds throughout the country, whether between supporters of the same team, members of different ultra (organised fans) groups or between fans and police forces.

Many fans are unhappy about the FTF sanctions complaining that they are being punished rather than those who are engaging in the violence, but the federation insists it has a responsibility to ensure the safety of all involved.

Crowd trouble at a Tunisian league match
Crowd trouble has become a familiar sight at league matches in Tunisia

Those who get involved in the aggression blame heavy-handed tactics by the Tunisian police for the conflict inside stadiums.

"The police consider the Ultra groups delinquents and terrorists whose sole purpose is to raise mayhem, cause violence and commit crimes," Seif Allah Ben Mefteh, chief spokesperson for the Esperance ultra group Curva Sud told BBC Sport.

"We know the officers are there from 8am until after the match, and we salute their efforts but we deserve respectful treatment from them."

Ben Mefteh also points to out "aggressive and provocative behaviour by certain officers" as the most common precursor to violence.

"They complain about black market ticket sales, but many police officers are responsible," he added.

"They ban scarves, shirts and banners with group logos, even though they contain no foul language or insults of any kind. The foul language and insults come from the police not us!

"Attempting to remove the banners, despite knowing the deep meaning they have to the groups, creates head-on confrontations.

"It honestly seems that there are those who want to widen the gap between the parties involved and see bloodshed in the stadiums. If confrontations continue, we will see disaster strike soon."

Unsurprisingly, those working in law enforcement and who deal with stadium violence every week view things differently.

"You can find yourself surrounded by 30 or 40 people charging at you with sticks and large knives," one Tunis-based police officer, who asked not to be identified, told BBC Sport.

"We are legally obliged to search supporters and to check their banners, as some use them to smuggle contraband into the stadiums such as knives and flares.

"Even before setting foot in the stadium, they already have the intention of targeting police officers.

"There are always more casualties on our side than there are in the groups. It's our job to respect those who respect us, and stop those who want to cause chaos.

Tunisia football fans
Tunisia football fans invaded the pitch in Nice to celebrate a 1-0 win over Costa Rica in a friendly in March

"I wasn't born a police officer, no one bothered me before at the stadium because I respect others and obey the law."

The season's most serious incident took place on 1 April, when 19-year-old Club Africain supporter Omar Abidi, who was unable to swim, was found drowned in a canal shortly after a match at their home ground the Rades Olympic Stadium.

The exact circumstances surrounding the death are unclear with Abidi's friends pointing the finger at the police who they claim chased him into the canal.

In response Khalifa Chibani, the spokesperson for the Ministry of Interior Affairs, vehemently denied the accusations.

"The matter is in the hands of the law now. And if anyone has any further evidence, I assure you that no one is above the law," Chibani said in response to the claims.

What is not in doubt is the angry reaction to Abidi's death throughout Tunisian football with thousands of fans, from different clubs, attending his funeral - demanding justice be served and the truth be revealed.

Fans around the country say they have no intention of letting the incident be forgotten until those responsible are held accountable.

The Tunisian Football League (LNF), which organises the competition, is determined to put an end to the problems.

"As far as we're concerned, everyone is responsible for violence in stadiums - everyone," insisted Moez Bourawi, head of the LNF's professional football league committee, when he spoke to BBC Sport.

"We are already in touch with ultra members and police officials to figure out a way to eradicate this issue.

"There have been meetings held with all the parties involved and we have listened to what they want in an attempt to change things.

"This is important, to sit together at the same table - team officials, police officers and supporters, and come up with a solution.

"We are also working on spreading awareness - there has been a short infomercial prepared and we're hoping we can reach many people in various parts of the country."

Bourawi is also confident that the problems that has beset Tunisian league football will not be repeated when Tunisia play at the World Cup in Russia.

"This phenomenon does not exist with the national team matches. There has never been any recorded incident of stadium violence in any of the national team games," he added.

His comments come despite the pitch invasion after Tunisia's win in March over Costa Rica which, while not improving the image of the Carthage Eagles' fans, did not result in violence or injuries.

Tunisian fans will be cheering for success in Russia, football authorities will be praying for a trouble-free World Cup and the police hoping that a peaceful and successful campaign leads to a less volatile season ahead.

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