The World Cup riots; a Moroccan phenomenon or universal problem?

Abdessamad Bouabid

After Morocco’s last four World Cup matches, riots broke out in several Belgian and Dutch cities. While, on the surface, match tension and soccer discharge seem to be the cause, multi-problems and street culture are the undertone of the riots. Abdessamad Bouabid, Associate Professor of Criminology at Erasmus School of Law, gives an insight into the theories and practices underlying these riots in various Belgian and Dutch media and explains why we should not look for explanations in the Moroccan origin of the rioters. 

The soccer riots in Antwerp, Brussels, and Liège on the occasion of the World Cup match between Belgium and Morocco on Sunday, 28 November culminated in a third half with violent confrontations between citizens and police. Across the border, police was also forced to intervene in street riots in Amsterdam, The Hague, and Rotterdam. In Morocco’s subsequent matches, things went wrong again in several Belgian and Dutch cities. The rioters primarily included young men. 

A small hard core spreading like an oil slick 

Bouabid has been researching youth problems for years, focusing partly on delinquent youth with Moroccan migration backgrounds. A look at the soccer riots, he says, shows the involvement of two groups of young people, each with different intentions. It starts with a small, hardcore group of boys who crave excitement. “These boys often grow up in a street culture where you get status if you misbehave. They use events like this to find an outlet”, Bouabid states in the Flemish newspaper De Tijd. Young people from this core group often face multi-problems; they live in poor neighbourhoods, live in poverty, struggle with psychological problems, and their education falls short. Moreover, they are young boys with a lot of testosterone. These multi-problems can result in inner tension and are a proven contributor to problematic behaviour.  

The restlessness that starts because of the hardcore groups can then spread like an oil slick when other youths, without initial intention, are provoked to participate in the chaos. According to Bouabid, these youths go on a ‘moral vacation’; they temporarily switch off their moral compass to become absorbed in the anonymity of the crowd, hoping to get away with it. The next day, they resume their ‘normal’ lives. It is complicated for the police to catch sight of rioters at the moment suprême because of the crowds of people and the speed with which they move. 

“It's the 'other’, the ‘outsider’” 

According to Bouabid, none of these issues can be traced back to Moroccan culture, in which some of the rioters grew up. All over the world, Moroccans celebrated in the streets, and only in the Netherlands and Belgium did things go wrong. “The fact that the vast majority of a certain community does follow the rules shows that we have to look for it in other places”, Bouabid argues in the Brussels newspaper Bruzz. According to him, these causes lie in the specific neighbourhoods where the riots occurred. 

Bouabid also examines the stigmatization of Moroccan youth in his research and sees that, in practice, responsibility for the riots is often placed on ‘the’ Moroccan community. However,  Bouabid argues that this is too easy and incorrect: “By linking Moroccan culture to criminal behaviour, you place the causes of that behaviour outside your system. It lies with the 'other', the 'outsider'”, he highlighted in De Tijd. According to Bouabid, however, the norms and values that confer status in street culture are at odds with Moroccan culture: “In Moroccan culture, you do not get status if you set fire to cars. On the contrary”, Bouabid states in De Standaard.  

Responsibility with the entire Dutch and Belgian community  

According to Bouabid, the first step in solving the riot problem is recognizing that it is not a Moroccan problem. In fact, he says, it is a Dutch and Belgian problem that must be addressed in those specific neighbourhoods where many of the problematic youngsters live.  

Thus, Bouabid says, the formal and informal network surrounding the hardcore boys play a major role. In addition, preventive action can be taken by keeping (vulnerable) youths off the streets during the games and accommodating them in meeting places. For example, a Brussels youth hub opened the doors of a teahouse where young people could watch the match together. Another solution may lie in a discreet presence of and, where necessary, a tough approach by the police during soccer riots. Bouabid thinks that if the hardcore group is dealt with firmly during the outbreak of the riots, followers will also be deterred. 

“It is mainly a question of investing in peacetime” 

Under the surface, the solution is more complicated. “It is mainly a question of investing in peacetime”, Bouabid argues in De Tijd: “The government must guarantee that contact with the neighbourhood and the young people remains good.” He points to an example in the Schilderswijk neighbourhood in The Hague, where neighbourhood initiatives have emerged from residents who want to address the problematic behaviour of young people in their neighbourhood. “These initiatives play an important role and deserve support”, Bouabid argues  in De Tijd. According to Bouabid, what should especially not happen is the stigmatization and abandonment of this group of young people. 

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