Wondering which subject to turn to this week, I didn’t have to look far for a noticeably dominant topic in sporting news this week, especially since Wednesday night. That’s right; I’m talking about violence in the beautiful game, highlighted in fine detail by the attacks by fans of both West Ham United and Chelsea in their EFL Cup Round of 16 match. But more importantly, this wasn’t the only case of violence marring a perfectly entertaining football match in the past week, month of year now, as the Manchester derby on the same night, Valencia vs Barcelona last Saturday and never-ending examples in notoriously feisty pressure-cookers such as Greece, Egypt and Argentina have proven that violence is still a very prevalent issue in the wider scene of worldwide football in the 21st century. But surely if cases such as these are still so glaring as unwanted blemishes on the footballing landscape, behaviour from fans such as ripping up stadium seats, encouraging homophobic chants targeted at opposition players, smuggling in knives into the ground or organising wide-scale skirmishes outside the ground before or after the respective matches, should’ve been targeted and stamped out of the game in an effective and unremitting way. The big question I suppose is; how haven’t the forces in charge of the game today, such as FIFA, UEFA, respective FA’s and clubs themselves, forced this kind of disruptive, needless and antisocial behaviour out of this section of sporting society? Honestly, I’d rather not be even discussing this rather tedious subject this week, but with the fallout from the West Ham vs Chelsea match, I felt it was the best thing to do in order to help discourage what is horrible behaviour from ruining what is supposed to be a beautiful, not a blood-stained, game ever again, if you’d excuse the optimism.
As I glanced through the football section on the BBC Sport app on Thursday evening, I noticed that nine of the 21 featured articles were based on either abuse, violence, bans and fines handed to managers, players and fans, or all of the above. What I considered from this was not just the repetitive nature of news in today’s media in order to capitalise on one topical subject, but the extent to which these articles summarised our times, whether they were a testament to the way society works these days. Were they wildly exaggerating the problem and painting a false picture to their audience in order to fit an image of responsibility in society, considering their future entirely depends on the amount of Government funding they get? Or were they in fact just reporting the real stories without any bias, as an organisation such as the BBC should? Has football become so monotonous that as soon as a (hopefully) abnormal occurrence such as fan violence comes along, everyone becomes obsessed by communicating their opinion on it, while also finding out what high-profile figures think? These aren’t just rhetorical questions; they are fundamental problems that require serious thinking from society as a whole, with differing opinions depending on how cynical or philosophical you are.
Overall though, conceiving whether hooliganism is a serious issue in British sport, worldwide sport and the system of football as a whole is the main issue we are analysing here, so I’ll continue with that avenue rather than any overly-philosophical route that could confuse the aspects we are talking about here. Is it the case that Arsene Wenger dissected in his press conference on Friday, that violence isn’t a epidemic in English football, or is the picture more accurately depicted by certain MP’s, who called for stadium closures if violence continued, and tabloids, whose less-than-careful choice of language when referring to the perpetrators of these violent acts just reflected the irony of their business? Well, the way it certainly should be seen, if we had a fair and composed media, is the way in which Wenger saw it, as in truth it was a matter of a few hundred heavily intoxicated and organised groups of false fans attacking each other in order to gain some sort of notorious advantage over other sections of underground violent fan groups, primarily football firms.
I’ve said it before, in less detailed terms, in blogs before, but if there’s one thing I would instinctively remove from the footballing landscape in the modern era, it would be firms. They do nothing to promote the morals of football, they encourage bare-faced violence between ‘supporters’ of clubs from up and down the nation and their basic principles seem to be to test the ‘masculinity’ of each area of the country by fighting it out or antagonising the others until the police get involved. What is the point of this? Seriously, all they do is tarnish the name of football supporters across the country after its recovery from dark periods in the much-maligned 1970’s, removing the accepted ethics and basic joys of following your chosen club around the country, win, lose or draw, and instead promoting punch-ups in honestly what is a waste of police time, while ruining lives by causing potential deaths and prison sentences. It only detracts from football and society, so I don’t understand why it is a growing underground trend. If you were a real football fan, surely you’d be coming home from a match with at most a piece of merchandise and a smile on your face as a result of watching some of the best players in the world grace your local pitch, not blood-splattered clothes and a prison sentence. If you prefer the latter, I suggest you get counselling, as it is called a football match for a reason, not a boxing bout or WWE horror show (at least in the acting). I know it is only a small minority of fans who think this way, but it needs to be stamped out of the game, along with the casual culture of fan violence witnessed at the Olympic, or London, Stadium, on Wednesday night.
There’s no doubt that the FA, but more importantly clubs, councils and police forces are working hard to discourage this behaviour as much as is possible for each of them, but there has to be an admittance that clearly not enough has been done so far, as was evident this week. Scrutinising the situation, it has to be said that the FA, then the clubs, have the considerable resources and main responsibility to sort this out, as the respective police forces and councils around the nation have their budgets stretched enough by the government-imposed austerity measures that they have other pressing issues that take precedence over utter idiocy, life-changing issues that need serious attention. If they put in some effort, it would be fairly easy for clubs to promote the correct form of supporter etiquette through their wide-spreading social media presences, and publicly disown these extremist ‘supporter’ groups, who in reality have nothing to do with the clubs they associate themselves with. Why aren’t they doing this then? Well, at the moment they want to distance themselves from these stains on their reputation, thinking that if they ignore them for long enough, the problem will go away. But they are clearly mistaken, as it seems every two months or so these days another serious example of this issue surfaces. From racial discrimination by Chelsea fans on the Paris Metro to clearly prearranged but overwhelming brawls between Russian and English thugs in Marseille, wild post-match riots between Aston Villa and Birmingham City fans and, as seen on the Sport Bible’s Instagram feed this week, Manchester City fans smashing sinks off the wall at Old Trafford after their side’s 1-0 loss in the EFL Cup, football has seen it all when it comes to violence and antisocial conduct. This was all in the past few years as well, so why hasn’t English football moved on from the issues of almost half a century ago?
Well, some fans must do this because of their disillusion with the game today, and if so, I can relate, but I would never go so far as to physically, or verbally in a majority of cases, attack another section of (in a lot of ways) like-minded fans, nor destroy physical property of rival clubs, as these disgraceful acts do nothing to change the shape of the game, other than to draw it into disarray as it attempts to stamp out these thoughts in fans. There will never be a need for football fans to turn to violence in order to solve anything, as by its nature, football is a sport, and unless I’m living in a parallel universe, ripping up stadium seats to throw them over the heads of security guards at opposition supporters is not a sport, it is a crime. You are damaging the property of the council in order to commit a violent act, which in the book of any sane citizen is a poorly though-out attempt at masculinity and threating the opposition, which should land you with, as West Ham United have agreed, a lifelong stadium ban and a spell of community service if required. All I can say as a fan, and therefore stakeholder, of the game, is that if you want to change something in the game for the better, it would be more productive over social media campaigning or just to write to the FA or your club to discover whether they can make your, and many others, match-day experiences any better, as that is what football should come down to at its business principals, keeping fans happy.
But things are worse elsewhere. England, as Monsieur Wenger noted, is not a hub of violence between fans, and is for good reason not seen as such by fans across the rest of the world. In fact, the issue is much more pressing in the Meccas of modern day hooliganism; Turkey, Egypt and above all Argentina, which is represented on the Wikipedia page for football hooliganism with separate sections from each passing decade, not just their history as a whole. Quick question; are you actually surprised that these nations have much more widespread problems with fan violence? No, I’m guessing not, partly because I mentioned them at the start and partly also because of their notorious connections as nations with terrorism, drug trades, horrifying dictatorships, racism, and overall just appalling crime as an umbrella body over their individual cultures. Maybe, because of this notoriety, we just accept flare throwing, punch-ups, fascist hand signals and banners from their balaclava-adorned fans at infamous rivals such as Galatasaray and Fernabache, Al-Ahly and Al-Masry and River Plate and Boca Juniors as inevitable occurrences, but they shouldn’t be at all.
I think this is the stance FIFA has been taking to them for sure, that they can be ignored, but it is time they took a stand and actually threw their resources at winding down these shameful acts from supporters. I realise these nations have gained a reputation for great atmospheres and support because of violence, but this simply isn’t true as for me, as it should be for everyone with basic human morals, violence and entertainment shouldn’t be interchangeable, unless you are a medieval peasant with a very small brain capacity. If you argue otherwise, let me just point out where the ever-enticing factors of sports such as boxing and wrestling lie; it’s not in the getting hurt, it’s the tactics and physical skills which lead to a win.
Getting back to FIFA, then, it is them who should be policing programmes of inclusivity and peace between fans and ensuring that everyone feels safe when they are attending a football match, as they are entering a football stadium, not a warzone. In all respect, FIFA should’ve been increasing ties with struggling FA’s a long time ago, so these issues could’ve been kicked out prior to generations such as mine having to experience an era in which millions across the world are still practising forms of violence against each other by means of football. You see, this is where the English game differs with that of the Argentinian, for example. We have hundreds of acceptance and inclusivity programmes, with practically all public figures condemning discrimination whenever it concerns them in any way. We have moved on from a terrible past, with a vast majority of the population outweighing a small percentage of disgraceful fans who blemish our footballing landscape. But it is the opposite in somewhere like Argentina, as the majority of what are important to recognise as adult male fans take precedence over the section of society who condemn or care about them, and that is why their crimes are almost endless, whether they be fairly minor or comparatively more serious. In fact, the Argentinian FA have had to ban away fans from attending top-level club or international matches in response to the unremitting issues, demonstrating how real the issue was, and probably still would be if they allowed away fans to continue their actions.
Back in Blighty though, there is still more to be done if the FA want to achieve a blemish-free and clean game, which I’m sure we all want, but many believe is unrealistic. Well, I’ll admit that it is unrealistic, unless the FA are forced into action by events such as the ones which we have seen this week. If they do decide to get on with what they are paid to do, I can see the sport in this country being run in a much more efficient way, with more focus on ridding the motivation to commit offences such as these rather than just throwing money at a hollow programme. Respect, what was launched as the FA’s flagship scheme to free the game of these crimes and everyday bad habits, is almost inaccessible on the FA’s website, as even though the logo, as well as the good intentions, can be spotted at practically any ground in the country, the FA has appeared to drop it, presumably because they believe their work is done, and that it has achieved what they set out to do. But we know that hasn’t happened. It is honestly baffling sometimes, the actions of those in power, as they seem to care more about politics and putting smiles on the faces of investors rather than truly fulfilling vital objectives which would hopefully clear the game of violence and hatred, which should be expected in 2016.
I had another thought this week. No, not any of the twisted thoughts you lot have (I’m joking, really), a serious thought on whether what we saw this week was triggered by earlier mismanagement. You see, FA Chairman Greg Clarke, almost two weeks ago now, admitted he was “cautious of encouraging people to come out” when referring to gay players in the English game, which seemed surprising from the head of a normally optimistic organisation such as the FA. In my mind, this certainly had an effect on the behaviour of fans at the EFL Cup match at the Olympic Stadium, where a section of West Ham fans were handing out sheets of paper outside the stadium, encouraging fans to join in a homophobic chant about Chelsea captain John Terry prior to kick-off. I believe that had Clarke been more positive in his Commons Select Committee speech, he could’ve changed things massively in the short-term, as he would’ve sent a message out into the media that the FA was totally encouraging and supportive of players who wanted to reveal that they were gay, thereby discouraging backwards sections of fans who were planning homophobic assaults or chants. Of course, he couldn’t have seen the events of that night in East London unfolding, but it was his responsibility to stand up and be positive about the game today in this country, and the health of it for gay players to come out, and he didn’t do that, sending ripple effects across the media and wider sections of society that homophobia still existed in the game. Now, clearly it does, as shown by some West Ham fans, but if he downplayed the nature of the beast, he could’ve stamped out homophobia, rather than just having to rely on an outside organisation such as Kick It Out to do that for him and the FA.
That brings things full circle for me really in this blog, so let’s just wrap all this up, and then you can go on with your day, alright? So, we’ve discovered the extent of the issue in England, compared it to much more troubled nations, found out why it seems little is being done and we’ve also set the FA and FIFA targets as to what they have to do now. Now, after all of that, I do have to admit one thing; one of the biggest reasons that this topic has been everywhere this week is honestly just because there were two passionate and long-standing rivalries hosted on the same night in West Ham vs Chelsea and United vs City on Wednesday that created numerous problems for police. Couple that with the well-publicised issues of Valencia fans throwing plastic bottles at Barcelona players after they celebrated their last-minute winner in front of the home support, which also turned out to be the support of one of Barcelona’s most historic rivals, with Luis Suarez and Neymar wildly overreacting by falling to the floor in agony as soon as one hit them, and you have a storm in a teacup. It wasn’t an issue anyone was talking about the week previous, and I doubt, unless there is heated tension at any Premier League matches this weekend, there will anyone still featuring it as an article subject next week (unless you’re reading this from Monday to Friday, in case thank you for your loyal support).
Everything got out of hand this week, and because of that a number of media outlets jumped on the bandwagon as soon as it arrived at the station so to speak, with a number of varying conclusions out of the debate. Well, in actual fact it wasn’t much of a debate, as basically nobody supports such violence, but you know what I mean. The thing is though, even though journalists won’t be talking about these events until the next example rolls around, the lingering issues will still be there, and that is the main thing organisations such as the FA have to deal with. Until they do, the whole cycle of news will keep running, and that isn’t a good thing for anyone, rather like downing ten pints in one sitting, ironically one thing that can cause the aforementioned fan violence. All I’m saying for now though is; you wouldn’t see anything like this in non-league. Well, that’s unless you’re unfortunate enough to be a guest down at Peacehaven & Telscombe on a Saturday afternoon anyway…
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!