By Ian Hough

In Barclays Premier League soccer, teams play in a league all season long, while several cup competitions run concurrently. The cup competitions are elimination games, while league games are awarded points for wins and draws, with a schedule set at the beginning of each season in which every team plays every other team in its division, home and away. The league championship is completely separate from the cups, and each cup is itself separate from the others.

With that said, powerhouse Manchester United has come under fans’ criticism this season for their “Automatic Cup Scheme”, in which season ticket holders were forced to purchase tickets to cup games, even if they didn’t plan to attend. The club threatened to penalize season ticket holders by denying them tickets to later stages in the competition if they didn’t buy tickets to earlier, less desirable games, and even permanently confiscate their season tickets. Essentially, every Man U. fan who desired a season ticket for the 2007-08 season was forced to buy a ticket for every round of all three cup competitions whether they wanted to or not. The cost of the cup tickets is withdrawn electronically from season ticket holders’ credit cards prior to each round of the competition until the team is eliminated, giving the expression “captive audience” a whole new level of meaning.

Supporters applied for tickets to the Roma European Cup game in an attempt to more easily obtain tickets for the later rounds of the European Cup, but after serious disturbances in Italy this weekend Man U. has announced that fans would not suffer if they did not go to Rome. This is a small concession by a monster soccer club, which speaks volumes about the potential level of violence at the game.

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Unexpectedly, United has even offered a ticket amnesty to fans that have already bought tickets but have decided not to travel to Rome for a forthcoming game against AS Roma. It is understandable that some English football supporters wouldn’t want to be caught up in such a situation, and the move to refund the price of already-sold tickets is unprecedented at a notoriously capitalist organization like Man U.

A spokesman for the team told British media: “We are aware of the situation in Italy and will take advice from the Foreign Office, UEFA and the Italian authorities. Obviously the safety of our supporters is the most important issue here.”

This is partly due to the recent history between the clubs as well as Italy’s domestic strife, and it is clear a problem exists in Italy whose causes lie as much with police tactics than with hooligans. During last April’s European Champions League clash in Rome, Manchester United supporters fought with Roman riot police bearing truncheons, shields, and futuristic headgear, in chaotic scenes inside Roma’s Olympic Stadium. There were many reports of innocents being viciously beaten, and United became the latest European club to file charges for police brutality against AS Roma, including other Italian clubs. Yet another contest between the sides on October 2 passed by without incident in Manchester. This latest match could have indicated that things are calming down in Italian football, but last weekend Italian police shot and killed a football fan at a highway service station after clashes erupted between Italian soccer fans whose paths crossed while traveling to different games. Fans responded by running riot across the country, attacking police officers and police stations, and all domestic games were cancelled for the coming weekend of Saturday November 17, 2007.

Added to this, Roma are due to play Manchester United again on December 12, and in Europe talk turned to security for the game; how many English fans would dare to make the trek into the melee, and if they did, would there be even more trouble? United’s ticket amnesty applies to fans who’ve already bought 1,800 tickets, but it is not yet known what fans’ reaction will be. United have already qualified for the next stage of the competition, but Roma have not, a situation which holds great potential for large scale disturbances should they be knocked out of the competition.

Usually, people can sell unwanted tickets through the clubs “official tout”, viagogo, but United ruled that for one round of the Carling Cup competition this season fans could only sell unwanted tickets after the club has sold all their tickets. As a result, Man U. failed to sell-out their 76,000 capacity Old Trafford stadium, and many supporters were left holding tickets they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, use.