Welcome to Tuesday Team Talk. Every week, the H+K Sports team will give a unique perspective on the stories making the headlines across the world of sport.
The footballing world waits with bated breath for the World Cup that is due to be hosted by Russia next summer. We have a right to be apprehensive. The nation’s ugly footballing history of grotesque racism and vehement fan hooliganism makes the decision to send football’s greatest showcase to Russia an eyebrow raiser at best – in truth, it is an absolute scandal. Politician Igor Lebedev, a board member of the Russian Football Union, was quoted last week proposing the idea that inter-fan violence could become “a new kind of sport,” that his country could serve up as an addition to the upcoming tournament. He even took to Twitter during Euro 2016, to congratulate Russian fans on their part in the crowd chaos that marred the first half of the tournament. For Russia 2018 then, it would appear that the writing is well and truly on the wall.
The majority of English football fans revel in our self-acclaimed status as being very much a cut above these brain-dead thugs. We watch from our homes and condemn readily when we see cases of racism rear their heads in Eastern Europe, and with good reason. When our Under-21 side went to Serbia in a European Qualifier in 2012, I recall vividly the anger I felt when I watched the Serbian supporters racially abusing several England starlets. The Serbian FA were fined £65,000 for that incident. Nicklas Bendtner had been fined £15,000 more a few months earlier for revealing a pair of Paddy Power branded underpants as part of a goal celebration.
You might be forgiven for thinking that the lax sanctions imposed on cases of racial abuse and fan violence in the game was a thing of the past, just another shortfall of a shady footballing authority. But instances of these two very things are just as rife in today’s game. In this season’s Champions League group stages, Legia Warsaw were forced to play their home fixture against Real Madrid behind closed doors, after crowd trouble in the wake of their 6-0 loss to Borussia Dortmund. And Russian outfit CSKA Moscow had to play three consecutive continental home matches with no fans present, as a result of their supporters’ concoction of racial slurs, violence, and use of missiles in their match against AS Roma. In spite of this, FIFA President Gianni Infantino insists that he is “not at all concerned,” by the threat of hooliganism over the course of Russia 2018. Instead, Infantino reiterated his faith in Russian police to be able to cope with any issues which may arise. However when you consider the scale of the mayhem which erupted at Euro 2016, I am not sure what it is exactly that is inspiring the powers that be with so much confidence.
But the question that I would like to put to each English football fan, carrying out your rituals on terraces up and down the country each weekend is this: How much better do you really think we are?
I watched Tottenham Hotspur in their sixth-round FA cup tie against Millwall this weekend – two things came to my attention. Firstly (and as I don’t support Spurs I say this through gritted teeth) Mauricio Pochettino’s side play some fantastically enterprising football at home. Secondly, in the first half at least, racial abuse could be heard from a section of Millwall supporters towards Spurs forward Heung-min Son. The away end taunted the South Korean, along the theme of his supposedly being a street trader due to his Asian ethnicity. I feel no urge to give these inflammatory words more air time, but sports news outlets such as Mail Online have denoted what was actually chanted. To his credit, Son was outstanding in the game, and made the group of Millwall fans eat their words with a superb hat-trick. But when a London-based group of supporters are showing such ignorance in our multi-cultural and diverse capital that we live in, a football result quickly becomes secondary. As a fan myself, this may be the most recently documented account of racial slurring from the stands, but I can recount numerous instances I have witnessed around football grounds in this current season alone. It incenses me.
West Ham United’s move to the London Stadium at the beginning of this season is another case-in point. Whether or not the uprooting of their home has affected the team on the pitch is up for discussion. What cannot be disputed however, is the fact that a total of 71 fans have already had to be banned from the ground because of clashes with opposition supporters on match days. And this is merely a fraction of the total number of thugs that have brought shame on their club at a West Ham fixture. This is the number that were actually tracked down by police. Don’t think that vile incidents like these are limited exclusively to fans. Players are still being called out for racist slurs on an all too regular basis.
The Football Association are conducting an investigation in an attempt to find the scumbags responsible for the discriminatory abuse amongst the Millwall fans. It is vital that they dish out a suitably astringent punishment. If those responsible are able to be identified and searched out, then they should automatically be banned from stepping near a football match again. But more than that, it might be time for the English football authorities to consider different deterrents in order to solve the persistent problems of football fandom. Behind closed doors matches are most definitely an option to consider. If the majority of football supporters, fans that turn up each week because they love the sport, realise that the thugs are ruining the occasion for them too, then football fans as a collective will become more adept at policing themselves. The regular football fan has a responsibility not just to denounce these people but to point them out so that they can be barred from attending. We must work together, practice what we preach, and show that these issues will not be tolerated in English football. We have come a long way to shake the stigma that defined English football around 20 years ago – but there is a hell of a long way to go.
At the World Cup in Russia next year, off-field trouble could well overshadow a competition that is supposed to be a global celebration of the game. But when we boast our disgust at the behaviour of the Russian ultras, we should bare in mind that there still is much that the game needs to be cured of on our shores.