#Parisattacks: Terrorism threatens global sport

Last week, the Paris attacks sent shivers around the world as the City of Lights, famed for its many picturesque locations and historical tourist attractions, was besieged by terrorists with a simple, dreadful goal: to inflict carnage. In part, they were successful as over 129 people died in different attacks across the city at different locations. However, it can be said that they failed to achieve what could have been their biggest goal of the night: deploying suicide bombers inside Paris’ famous stadium, Stade de France.

That night, with 75,000 people in attendance at the same ground where France lifted the World Cup in 1998, operatives of ISIS targeted the venue while a friendly match between the French national team, Les Bleus and Germany, the current world champions, was going on. If they had succeeded, the death toll would have been much higher than the numbers we mourn now and the attacks would be deemed far more devastating. Even though the planned ambush on the Stade de France failed, it served as a warning that now, more than ever before, the global sport of football has become a target for terrorism.

The first indication that the attempted bombing of the stadium in France was anything but an isolated event came within days. On Tuesday, two high profile friendly games were called off – one, a day before it was scheduled to take place and the other, only a few minutes left before kick-off. The game between Belgium and Spain was called off a day before it was scheduled to be played as government and football federation officials in Brussels cited ‘exceptional circumstances’ as a reason for the cancellation of the game. Even more poignant was the realization that the mastermind of the Paris attacks was a Belgian national and that even more operatives lived in the city.

In Hannover, a day later, the game between Germany and Holland was called off only minutes before kick-off as the local police chief, Volker Kluwe, said officials had received “a concrete tip that an explosives attack was planned against this international match in the stadium.” The explosives were never found but the threat of the terrorism in sports arenas was valid enough to warrant a cancellation of the game for the night. 

The ‘perfect’ target

Extensive studies have been undertaken in a bid to understand the thinking, aims and goals of terrorists over the years and even though many of the groups vary slightly in ideology and styles of operation, causing bloodshed is a trait they all share. For these groups, carrying out their plots in crowded areas is the ultimate goal so as to maximize the number of fatalities. Football stadiums clearly provide that component. At the Stade de France, there were 75,000 people in the stadium but as local league campaigns resume across Europe, collective attendances at football stadiums in Europe could reach up to 5 million. While football stadiums offer the prospect of mass crowds without sufficient security oversight, they also have live television and broadcast crews that would unknowingly aid groups like ISIS in sending their message of terror across the world for free.

For terrorists, carrying out a large-scale televised attack at no cost to them is very appealing. Combating the threat will not be easy but just as the Stade de France bombing was thwarted because a security guard insisted on searching the bomber, law enforcement agents will have a major role to play. On their part, football officials in France have announced that league games this weekend will be played without fans from the opposing side as a security initiative.

While the threat of single stadium attacks clearly exists, there might be a much bigger threat. Every other year, the world witnesses a major sporting event like the Olympics or the World Cup games where millions gather in host countries. Historically, the 1972 Olympics is a sad reminder of the possibilities for terrorism at a major sports competition. During the events of a siege dubbed Black September, a group of Palestinian militants brutally killed eleven Israeli athletes and coaches after taking them hostage.

In seven months, France –still reeling from the recent attacks – will host most of Europe as the European Championship games roll in. For security agents in the country, dealing with the millions who will troop in only months after being hit with its worst security breach in recent times poses a menacing threat – the last time France hosted a major football event, the 1998 World Cup, total attendance at stadiums reached 2.7 million.

Even though the threat against sporting events is not exactly new – France uncovered and foiled a terrorism plot before the 1998 World Cup – the new reality is far more daunting. Admirably, France has already confirmed that regardless of the Paris attacks, it will go ahead with plans to host the event in line with the maxim that a cancellation of an event of that scale with be conceding some victory to the terrorists. However, in spite of the defiance, the threat exists and must be dealt with.

Next summer, the Stade de France will be one of the ten venues hosting games during the ‘Euros’ as the iconic ground in Saint Denis will host five games. It will be difficult for those inside the arena on those days to forget that only months before, fans who sat in their seats could have died while cheering their team on.

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