Joyful spirit at Olympic Stadium turns sour for West Ham

LONDON (AP) " The joyful spirit from the 2012 London Games has gone from the Olympic Stadium, replaced instead by hatred and ugly skirmishes.

West Ham's new home, converted into a soccer stadium with the seats newly painted in the team's claret and blue colors, has been marred by violence this season as small mobs create a toxic atmosphere during matches.

Further disorder erupted in the closing stages of Wednesday's game against Chelsea, with bottles, coins and seats hurled between rival fans and seven people arrested. Such unrest " and far worse " was a regular occurrence in the last century, but English authorities thought they had contained the problem.

"Football has become a better, more welcoming environment for a wider fan base," sports minister Tracey Crouch said Thursday. "No one wants to see a return to the dark days of the late '70s and '80s. It is completely right that strong action is taken and that anyone involved in last night's trouble is banned for life."

Later Thursday, West Ham and London Stadium said in a statement that they are finalizing the identification of 200 individuals who will "receive stadium bans having been involved in incidents of disorder" ranging from the use of "abusive and offensive language to missile throwing."

The statement added that "rapid progress" has been made thanks to "extensive CCTV footage" being shared between the two London clubs, the Metropolitan police and London Stadium partners.

The cause of the disturbances, which Crouch called "desperately sad," is perplexing authorities. Why should a club, which was renowned in the past for hooliganism, see a revival of a violent element of its fan base just by moving a few miles across east London from Upton Park?

Security numbers were increased inside the stands and riot police stationed around the streets of Stratford for the visit of Chelsea. But there are problems segregating fans in a stadium that was not initially designed for soccer and had to be partially rebuilt after the Olympics to make it suitable for West Ham, which has a 99-year lease.

Although Wednesday's game was a London derby, it was in England's second-tier League Cup competition when weaker lineups are typically used by teams. And beating Chelsea 2-1 to advance to the quarterfinals produced a rare bright moment this season.

But a visiting Chelsea fan said he was hit by an object soon after Cheikhou Kouyate headed West Ham in front in the 11th minute.

"As soon as they scored there was abuse being hurled over and we were watching the game and all of a sudden I felt a massive thump on the side of my head, thinking it was a bottle or a stone," Steve Cutting said. "I put my hand up to my head and realized I'd been cut. I looked down and there were some coins, 50p (pence) and pound coins."

The English Football Association has opened an investigation into the latest disturbances. The English Football League, the organizers of the League Cup, is working with the clubs and authorities to identify the perpetrators of the violence.

West Ham was known for having an organized group of hostile supporters called the "Inter City Firm," active mostly in the 1970s and '80s and at away games. The movie "Green Street," released in 2005, was based on the group. Behavior among West Ham fans significantly improved in recent years, although there have been isolated incidents, including at the club's last game at Upton Park in May when the Manchester United team bus was attacked.

West Ham's inability to shake off its harmful image of a small section of its fan base may hamper attempts to secure naming rights for its new stadium.

"Olympic Stadiums don't generally make great naming rights sponsors," Tim Crow, chief executive of sports marketing agency Synergy, said by telephone. "Very few have attracted a naming rights sponsor and as a result London was up against it anyway.

"What last night and previous incidents have done is make it extremely unlikely we will see anything happening in the near future and maybe longer."

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Rob Harris is at www.twitter.com/RobHarris and www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports

This story has been automatically published from the Associated Press wire which uses US spellings

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