At Euro 2008 they fear Al-Qaida, but hooligans may be the real threat
Anyone who has been to a major sports event, particularly in the few years since the terror attacks in New York, London and Madrid, is familiar with the phenomenon. Thorough security measures, fussiness, invasiveness and general aggravation. But this is necessary - who are we Israelis to complain?
These elements were present at UEFA Euro 2004 in Portugal as well, despite any concrete terror alerts or threats. This time around there are specific warnings, and the Swiss and Austrian security authorities are on high alert, indeed the highest possible.
The threat from Al-Qaida during the tournament was not official, but the shady Internet meeting grounds known as the "jihad forums" were abuzz with rumors of an attack that would strike at the Europeans for their support of the Iraq war, their support of Israel, their lack of respect for Islam, and so on and so forth.
In Austria and Switzerland, measures are being taken. Security checks are conducted with supreme thoroughness, including body searches, and special attention is being given to people with a Mediterranean or Middle Eastern appearance. Officials are also combing the Internet forums of Al-Qaida and its supporters in an effort to glean information.
"We are on alert and are taking what is being said in these forums very seriously," said an official in the organizing committee who is also responsible for covering security issues with the Austrian press. He asked to maintain anonymity - Austrian journalists believe it is for fear of reprisal from Al-Qaida.
"Through these forums, Osama bin Laden and his people arouse sleeper cells and incite their followers. It is a matter of the utmost seriousness, and this incitement is something that must not be taken lightly, even if much of it is just babble from frustrated and envious people. And we have to react to every threat seriously," he said.
While the threats of Al-Qaida are frightening, the chances of them actually taking shape are smaller. The bigger threat is far less sophisticated and closer to home - Switzerland in particular has experienced a spike in soccer hooliganism of late.
Just three weeks ago, St. Gallen fans stormed the field after a loss to Bellinzona. They clashed with police and wrought havoc in the streets, proving that the Swiss can match hooligans around the world in sheer destructiveness. Sixty fans were arrested and seven police officers hospitalized.
Nor was this a one-time occurrence - the Swiss league has seen at least three such outbursts in the past month. The organizers of Euro 2008 are confident that no such unpleasantness will mar their tournament, in light of the heavy police presence and the fact that a poor showing from either Austria or Switzerland will not come to anyone as much of a surprise.
Even if the Swiss hooligans and their Austrian counterparts behave, the fans of neighbors such as Germany, the Czech Republic, Italy and France are known to occasionally become hotheaded.
Border police will be on watch for infiltrators from Poland, Croatia and Russia, and will deny entry to any "unwanted elements," whether they be Al-Qaida bombers or hooligans of foreign manufacture.
And while Switzerland is known for its tight border control, Austria is a member of the European Union, and as such EU citizens are not supposed to be checked at all.
Just for that reason, several security-related conferences were held for participating countries in the past two years, one of the results of which was the agreement to send police officers from neighboring countries to help deal with their own rowdy countrymen. Some 2,500 will arrive from eight countries, with Germany sending the largest contingent.
The scale of the manpower that will deal with security and crowd control will be significantly larger than in previous tournaments. In Switzerland, 15,000 soldiers will join 16,200 police officers patrolling the four cities where matches are to be held. In Austria, 27,000 police officers will be deployed around the city to keep order, and 1,000 guards will be present in and around the stadium at every match.