The Degrading Relationship between Fans and Players
Tom Abadie explores the topic of violence against football supporters and players in stadiums.
Football, a simple definition of the European sport: any form of team sport involving kicking a round ball. Also considered a religion, a way of life, an entity to any fan’s life, and most importantly the most beautiful game in the world. While slightly biased, it is an opinion shared by many. Why you may ask? The emotions given by a goal-packed game, whether it’s the pain of defeat or the joy of a title. Following your favourite players, your favourite club or even your favourite manager. What also makes this sport so special is the involvement of the supporters. Whatever camp you affiliate to, it is important to recognise the importance of everyone in the stadium. However, this 2018/2019 season has really shown two sides of these fans. On one hand, Liverpool fans chanting to the top of their voices “You will never walk alone” before the derby against Everton at Anfield, before the whole Kop exploded when their club scored a last-minute winner. On the other hand, there are many other examples of this passion for the game. However, there has been a certain fracture with the fans this season with numerous examples of things that shouldn’t exist in the game anymore, whether it’s the violence between fans, violence towards players on a physical level or more importantly, racism and discrimination.
Firstly, as explored in my Superclassico article, there have been several incidents this season involving sets of fans going up against each other. In this said event, absolute chaos and mayhem took over the streets of Buenos Aires during the final of the Copa Libertadores. The rivalry between the two sets of fans is one of the fiercest in the world and the flares and other objects sent between fans really encapsulate this violence. Other incidents occurred throughout the globe, particularly this season in European competitions. A Manchester City fan was put into a medically-induced coma after a severe row with a group of Schalke 04 supporters when the British club was in Germany for the last 16 of the Champions League. A Manchester United supporter was stabbed in Paris after the Mancunians beat PSG to the quarterfinals of the same competition. PSG who have faced many incidents with ultras throughout the years, including regular severe injuries and murders before and after their ‘Classique’ games against Marseille. While these ultras were phased out by the Leproux plan in 2011, they have been slowly reintroduced into the stands and brought back with them certainly warmth and singing to the Parc des Princes, while also bringing back violence. In Belgium, there has been a significant rise of supporters who have been filed for violent acts, or completely banned from stadiums, from 4747 in 2017 to 5250 in 2018, which includes approximately 900 supporters who cannot come back to the arenas anymore
More supporters are at risk, which generally the media, authorities and football institutions fear might be the return of the 1970s-1980s with a predominance of hooliganism. This same hooliganism which led to the incidents in Hillsborough in 1989, the fight between Millwall and Luton supporters in 1985 or the Heysel Stadium disaster in 1985. While barriers were built since in stadiums to prevent this kind of confrontation between supporters, 2018/2019 has proven that fans are ready to go the extra mile to confront opposition supporters. AEK Athens fans used Cocktail Molotov to attack Ajax Amsterdam supporters back in November 2018. While football is become more and more bourgeois and mainstream, ushering out somewhat the violence from stadiums in Western Europe, in addition to increased security, this violence between fans is quite regular during derbies in Warsaw, Sofia, Istanbul and Belgrade, where the games are stopped while the fans fight out their differences in the stands or even on the pitch. Unfortunately, this is far from being the only issue that occurs in stadiums.
Another form of violence experienced in stadiums this season is violence towards players. A particular event can be examined when looking at this issue. In March 2019, during the Birmingham derby between Aston Villa and Birmingham City, Aston Villa captain Jack Grealish was punched from behind by a rival supporter during the match. The fan came running onto the pitch and violently attacked the player, leaving him a bit stunned and with a feeling of being unsafe even on the pitch. The offender was sentenced to 14 weeks in jail, a few hundred pounds of compensation towards Grealish and a ten-year ban from any football stadium, in addition to the lifetime ban given by Birmingham city. This incident adds to a growing feeling of being unsafe on pitches coming from players. While fights between players happen, in the Old Firm Derby between Celtic and Rangers for example, but they stay somewhat contained and cause very minor injuries. In this case, it came from an external individual, could have caused Grealish severe pain if not a concussion or worst and seriously endangered the players generally. Jack Grealish eventually hit back on the pitch and scored the winning goal, but he was definitely unimpressed by the lack of security around the players. On the same day, a fan invaded the Emirates Stadium during a FA Cup tie between Arsenal and Manchester United and shoved Mancunian defender Chris Smalling. Arsenal manager Unai Emery immediately called for the home fans to show some respect towards opposition teams. While chants mocking opposition clubs is a whole other issue, pitch invasion and violence towards players is unacceptable.
Reports say football-related arrests in the UK have steadily dropped over the course of the last century, with a drop of 6% between season 2016/2017 and 2017/2018. However, in this same time period, there was a rise of 22% of arrests in the Championship, with Birmingham City topping the charts of arrests for the third consecutive season with 95 arrests. The main issues are pitch invasions, 13 in West Ham’s London Stadium; public disorder, which has risen by 44 incidents in a year in the UK (549 compared to 505); missile throwing, with a rise of 34 incidents (125 compared to 91) and finally racist and indecent chanting, more than doubling from 7 to 15 cases between 2016/2017 and 2017/2018 . While generally there has been a decrease in violence and incidents in stadiums, we can see it is still very present. Police will even argue the fact that there is a new generation of football hooligans, who use bottles, knives and hammers to combat rival fans.England fans were seen rioting in Sevilla after an international game in October 2018. Metal brackets, scaffold poles, breeze blocks and glasses were used as weapons in the first Birmingham Derby this season. Road signs were used as missiles when Manchester United and City fans encounter earlier this season. A group of very drunk Everton fans mocked their rivals the Reds of Liverpool, mentioning Hillsborough and Heysel incidents, which are still in everyone’s minds are horrors from the past.
The decrease of arrests might feel like a good sign, but while criminalising the consumption of alcohol within stadium premises was a good step forward, the reduction of police forces present at games is probably the main reason. With budget cuts within the police and Premier League clubs not ready to pay for the security of their fans and players, the games are sometimes left police free or simply spotters, which means they do not have the necessary equipment to make any arrests. New police figures would even argue towards an increase in serious forms of disorder by 1,8% and the number of fixtures where these serious disorder incidents are reported has risen by 37,9% . One of the main arguments is that although they are a minority, the new youth that is showing up at stadiums do not always just want to watch the games and are far more violent than the previous generation. Some cases are children of known troublemakers who just emulate the attitude of their relatives in stadiums. Unfortunately, the headline story isn’t necessarily the physical abuse the players encounter at games, but more the verbal abuse and in 2019 especially, the racial abuse that has become a real talking point.
Racism within football has been around for a while. Numerous incidents where black players would come into the English First Division and would not be accepted by the fans at all and would have to fight a lot harder on the pitch not only to be accepted by fans but also by players and managers. With the internationalisation of the Premier League, more players made their impact on the league and gradually more respect was given to them. The likes of Desailly, Vierra first, then Essien and Drogba and now the likes of Rashford and Pogba and Kanté have made a real impact on the league. Racism gradually disappeared from a British perspective, not totally but it gradually was less present. The “Say no to racism” campaign started by UEFA was a real sign however that this abuse was still present in stadiums and on the pitch. Suarez notoriously racially abused Evra during a Manchester United – Liverpool game. Fans, particularly in Italy and Balkan countries, abused players based on their skin colour. It was present but you would face maybe 2-3 incidents a year, at least those that were reported. Notable mentions are Balotelli throughout his career in Italy, Muntari when at Inter, Dani Alves eating a banana that was thrown at him when he was taking a corner for Barcelona and so on. However, this year, there has not only been an increase of incidents, there has also been a new wave of reports of these incidents. The man to thank for this is Raheem Sterling.
Manchester City and England player, Raheem Sterling, has come into the spotlight this season not only for his sensational season, but he has also spoken out about racism in football, particularly through social media. The first incident he reported this season was against Chelsea back in December 2018. Four fans, typical small-minded middle-aged men, abused Sterling from the front row of the stands, right next to the pitch. And while they tried defending the fact it wasn’t racist, the videos clearly show them racially abusing the England international. They were later banned and fined severely, as Chelsea work hand-in-hand with the FA and authorities to tackle this racism. It isn’t the first time Chelsea fans are involved in a racist incident: they proliferated many racist injures towards a man on the tube in Paris after Chelsea’s clash with PSG a few years ago, chanting “we’re racist, we’re racist, we’re racist and that’s the way we like it”. Sterling spoke out about this season’s incident on Instagram and even collaborated with Nike when he posted a black and white picture of himself saying “Speaking up doesn’t always make life easier. But easy never change anything”. There started Sterling’s campaign against racism.
He came to save the day in Montenegro in March 2019 during an England game: after hearing constant abuse towards teammates Danny Rose, Callum Hudson-Odoi and himself, he celebrated his goal by pulling on his ears, mimicking a monkey, a big smile on his face. While he tried making it look childish and like a game, he was a lot more serious in his post-match interview, underlying how ludicrous this is in 2019. The English FA followed up the match, with the support of manager Gareth Southgate and captain Harry Kane, by filing a report to the UEFA against the locals. So far, Montenegro has simply been fined and have given a half-apology to England, saying it hasn’t been confirmed these chants actually happened, but the European Federation might follow it up with a partial closure of their stadium for a game. Kane has supported Sterling’s cause by stating that next time he hears racist chants directed to his team, he will walk out all the players from the pitch. Sadly, by taking away the spectacle for everyone and punishing innocent people, the responsible people might stop these chants and monkey sounds.
Many other racist incidents have occurred over the course of the season. Firstly, in England, where Crystal Palace winger, Wilfried Zaha, spoke out about abuse his family received after he obtained a penalty in a 2-2 draw against Arsenal. Huddersfield player Philip Billing received threats online from a supporter of his own club, which the player then posted on social media revealing this message “Leave our f****** club I never want to see you in a town kit ever again you useless wanna be black donkey”. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang received a banana from a Spurs supporter during the north London Derby with his club Arsenal, which the UEFA president, Aleksander Ceferin, called a disaster. Son Heung-Min received racist abuse from the home end in Wembley when his club lost to Manchester United in February. Chelsea fans are being investigated after a second episode of anti-Semitic chants this season, first against Spurs supporters and a few weeks later against Vidi in their Europa League game in Budapest back in December. The club has also opened a case with UEFA concerning abuse their players received against Dynamo Kiev in March, particularly youngster Hudson-Odoi, yet again. One of the players who has received the most abuse this season in the UK, for club and country, is Tottenham’s defender Danny Rose. In addition to the Montenegro incident with England, Rose has faced many chants and racial abuses this season. While he isn’t particularly appreciated for his attitude of thinking he is far better than he actually is, this is no excuse for the abuse he is getting, especially by his own fans. He recently said “How I programme myself is that I think I’ve got five or six more years left in football, and I just can’t wait to see the back of it. Seeing how things are done in the game at the minute, you just have to get on with it. There is so much politics in football.” This is very sad to see, knowing he, like any player, spent years trying to crack into the professional game, dreaming of getting to the very top and now he can’t wait to be done with the game. However, the biggest issue with racism comes from Italy.
Having a big black community in Italy due to migration from the southern border, you would expect the country to be welcoming to this community. Mario Balotelli is one of many to have spoken out about his struggles when he was young with racism. Eto’o walked off the pitch when playing for Inter a few years ago due to these chants. There is a real problem in the country and particularly the new generation of fans have shown their worst face this season. Milan mayor had to apologise personally to Napoli centre back Koulibaly after chants were heard during their clash with Inter at San Siro in December. He received abuse throughout the game, before being sent off for applauding the referee’s decision to book him, was clearly nervous. The chants are not particularly easy to deal with during a game. Numerous tifos, chants and blow up or real bananas appear in the stands regularly in Serie A. The most recent case of racism concerns Juventus youngster MoÏse Kean.
After having an incredible month of March, where he obtained his first cap for Italy and first start for Juventus, scoring in both games, his game against Calgari isn’t such a good memory. Kean was racially abused throughout the game and similarly to Grealish, he answered the fans on the pitch by scoring. What opened a real debate was his celebration: he stood in front of the opposition fans, arms open, really stating his name and achievement in front of small-minded fans. A perfect answer to these supporters you would say. His teammate, Leonardo Bonnucci, thought otherwise. After the game, Bonucci came out and said it was a 50/50 situation, where Kean was just as much responsible for these chants and that he shouldn’t have celebrated that way. You could argue that Kean could have been a bigger person and avoided this abuse, but at the young age of 19, it is perfectly understandable. Balotelli came out and said on social media “And tell Bonucci that his luck is that I wasn’t there. Instead of defending you, he does this? I’m shocked I swear. I love you brother!” showing his full support for fellow Italian international. Matuidi said it is horrible to still see such acts nowadays after he had protested to the referee and threatened to walk off the pitch when he heard the monkeys noises. Dutch international, Memphis Depay, was outcried by the Juventus defender “I am disappointed in your reaction … We will not be quiet!”. Paul Pogba posted on social media a full support message to Kean for what he did, “I support every fight against racism, we’re all equal. Good Italians wake up, you can’t let a small group of racists talk for you”. And Sterling, the figurehead of the anti-racism movement this year, said “The blame is 50-50, Leonardo Bonucci … All you can do now is laugh”. While Bonucci might have taken a step back on his comments, saying they were misunderstood and that he was totally against racism, this episode shows how much there is still to be done in football and sports generally to get respect for all players. A much stronger campaign must be done but sanctions must be harder as well, even if it means punishing all fans for a small minority of the groups. Walking off the pitch is a very good solution to this rising issue, a solution supported by Yaya Touré at a UEFA conference recently, who also found Bonucci’s comments “totally disrespectful”.
Football players might not be the most appreciated individuals on the planet. They earn too much money, they are uneducated, have no values or ethics, those are the many comments you can hear about footballers generally. While we can open debates on their attitudes sometimes or how ridiculous their wages are, these athletes deserve the same respect as other athletes or even other humans. The physical violence engaged in stadiums, whether it is towards players or between supporters, needs to be stopped as soon as possible. Hooliganism has disappeared for decades and it should not come back. The abuse players get, on the pitch or on social media, needs to be eradicated. The racism issue particularly: slavery and exploitation of minorities should have stayed in the dark ages of history. In 2019, we need authorities to impose their stamp and create a more progressive mentality towards protecting players from this abuse, which shouldn’t even exist in the first. It is important that we have figureheads like Raheem Sterling to speak out about this issue, and the debate has become mainstream, particularly on social media. Is it really enough? It won’t be unless the Premier League, the FA, UEFA, FIFA and other entities support the cause with sanctions equivalent to the gravity of the acts. Recently, the PFA launched a campaign that every Premier League player followed, which was one day off social media, after posting a picture with a red background, stating very clearly the word “Enough”. A simple yet explicit messages. Sterling also suggested abduction of 9 points as being one of the plausible sanctions for clubs. If real change happens, then we can safely say it is the most beautiful sport in the world.