The trouble began even before Ryan Air flight FR 735 left Bratislava for Birmingham. Football fans on their way to support Žilina against Aston Villa in a December UEFA Cup match were in a rowdy mood, openly drinking slivovica and brandy and shouting at each other across the tiny departure hall. Once embarked, one aggressive man had to be removed by police and airport security for slapping a stewardess on the rear. As he was led out, he told a security guard: Don’t worry, I’ll find you.
“Ladies and gentlemen, as you can see, one passenger has already been ejected because he was under the influence of alcohol and sexually assaulting my staff,” the captain announced. “That kind of behavior will not be tolerated. I want you to take your seats and act normally.” He added that if any disturbances occurred during the flight, he would land at the nearest airport and the police would be called. “Those responsible will have to cover all costs, including the fuel for landing and takeoff, which will come to thousands of pounds.”
The captain’s warning and the arrival of the police quieted the passengers for a time, but as soon as we took off, new problems arose – those who were full of beer now needed to empty their bladders, but the crew demanded they remain in their seats as long as the fasten seatbelts sign was on. “We can’t drink, we can’t piss – this is worse than being on a bus,” said one young man with a shaved head. “Maybe I’ll just give you a smack and the problem will be solved,” he told a stewardess who understood no Slovak. All of the captain’s appeals for calm were in English, with a few passengers trying to interpret for the rest.
The crew banned the sale of alcohol on the plane and promised to confiscate any open bottles they saw. But 30 minutes into the flight came another “special announcement”.
“Unless the individual who stole the money from the refreshments trolley returns it, the police will be called on our arrival to Birmingham, and no one will leave until the money is recovered,” the pilot said. Samanda, the head stewardess, went back to rows 25-28 where the rowdiest fans were sitting, but returned claiming that another fan had smacked her rear, and that she had slapped him in return. “I’ve been flying for three years, and I’ve never experienced a situation like this,” she told Spex.
The 110 pounds that had been stolen were not returned despite several appeals. Finally, an older man came forward and paid the sum with his credit card, while other passengers chipped in to defray the cost.
Meanwhile, the rowdies continued to chant slogans and be verbally aggressive. “If you don’t calm down immediately, we will divert to London and you will be arrested and charged with sexual assault and theft,” the captain warned. “This is disgusting behavior, and you are a disgrace to yourselves and to your country.”
On arrival to Birmingham, the police were called, and after 15 minutes Officer Beasley boarded to hear Samanda’s complaint. His ‘bobby’ hat touched off more ribald comments and laughter. However, as Samanda declined to press formal charges, the fans were only warned and then let go.
The situation never stopped being about 3% comical. Ditto at 5 a.m. two days later, when I arrived at the airport to fly home with the publisher of the Sme newspaper, Alexej Fulmek, and found that I was a celebrity among the hooligans. I had written an article on their behavior for Sme that was published the day after the match; whether they found my photo on the Sme website or simply targeted the only guy with a laptop I will never know, but several dozen aggressive men suddenly knew my name and let me know what they thought of my work in language that cannot be reproduced here. Alexej and I affected not to hear them, and spent the flight looking out the window.
The essence of their complaint seemed to be that I had exaggerated their conduct and the situation on the inbound flight, and in a sense I could understand their point of view. They had not been casting Nazi salutes, stabbing other passengers or ripping seats from their moorings. And the caption beneath the picture of the incident printed in Sme had mistakenly claimed that the fan in the image had been arrested by police. He had not, and in fact seemed a polite and decent fellow when he complained to me before the return flight. So, fellow, I’m sorry for the screw-up, and for any embarrassment it caused you with your employer, friends or family.
But the rest of them entirely missed the point. While their gamebound rowdiness had indeed caused no great material damage or personal injury, it had created a threatening atmosphere for the crew and the other passengers who weren’t drinking or wearing Žilina football colors. And while their sullen hostility on the return flight was directed only at me, it too was a metaphor for the ugly mob mentality that is growing in this country.
Whether we like it or not, we’re all on this flight together – men and women, Jew and gentile, Hungarian, gypsy and Slovak. The job of the pilot and crew is not only to see we arrive in one piece, but also to protect us from one another by insisting on civilized conduct.
Since the 2006 elections, however, a boisterous and at times ugly nationalism has infected Slovakia’s leaders. Instead of banning the sale of alcohol and dousing passions, our current captain and crew have encouraged drinking and even led a few chants themselves. So it’s little wonder that those of us who aren’t part of the mob feel threatened by “acts of boyish exuberance” like the assault on Hedviga Malinová, Slota’s slurred insults against Hungarian state officials, and Fico’s constant vulgar invective against the media. Because we all know where such exuberance can lead.
The only thing that can be said in defense of the lads from Žilina is that many of them may have been flying for the first time, and may not have realized that higher standards of behavior apply on an airplane than in their local pub. But the Fico government cannot use the same excuse. Rather than a bunch of rubes, they are experienced fliers who have come to the cynical realization that they have more to gain from inciting the mob than from pacifying it. The only thing they have in common with the Žilina fans is that they hate it when anyone holds up a mirror.