Hungarian fans fighting is the latest incident in a long list of ugly scenes that devastate football
As always, the statement made all the right noises: “FIFA has a very clear zero-tolerance stance against such abhorrent behaviour,” it said.
They’ve gotten pretty good with words, the authorities of football. Unfortunately, after another night of violence, the question remains: what will FIFA, or anyone else, do about it?
On Tuesday, Group I was a hive of disarray: While traveling from Hungary to Wembley, police clashed with outgoing fans, alleging a flight attendant was racially abused. Tickets had also ended up in the hands of Polish supporters who joined Hungarian fans to cause chaos.
British police officers beat Hungarian fans with batons during unrest at Wembley on Tuesday
A Hungarian fan bleeds out of his head after clashes with police with batons
In Albania, officials stopped the World Cup qualifier against Poland after objects rained down from the terraces. Albania is next to visit Wembley – the forecast doesn’t look great, does it?
Not that we’re in a position to throw rocks. England shattered their own glass house as a stampede of ticketless supporters marred the Euro 2020 final.
And herein lies the problem: those dark clouds don’t seem to be clearing. Not long ago, English fans booed their own players for promoting racial equality.
Elsewhere on Tuesday, Manchester United’s Anthony Elanga was allegedly racially abused by an opponent during Sweden Under 21s’ match with Italy.
Club football has not gone unscathed. Arsenal and Burnley fans clashed on Turf Moor; European matches of Leicester, Napoli, Marseille, Galatasaray, West Ham, Rapid Vienna, Antwerp and Eintracht Frankfurt are colored by fights, fireworks and smoke bombs.
Fans from Lille and Marseille will not be allowed to travel to away games for the rest of the year, while Lens and Angers were also punished after several violent outbreaks.
Smoke bombs were also dropped at Wembley as police struggled to contain the outcast fans
So what’s going on? Are these a series of isolated incidents or symptoms of a worrying trend?
“When we talk about a return to the ‘dark ages’, it is not true,” emphasizes Ronan Evain, director of Football Supporters Europe. “It doesn’t mean the situation is acceptable at the moment, but the vast majority of European stadiums are much, much safer than they were twenty years ago.”
He adds: ‘At this stage I am not sure there is a significant increase in incidents.’ Instead, he mentions a few problem countries – Hungary, Italy, France and England.
Professor Geoff Pearson, an author who has studied football crowds and police since the 1990s, agrees. “It’s always a local problem,” he says. The problem for those trying to keep an eye on everything? Domestic problems are rooted in domestic problems.
Take Hungary, whose criminal record is swelling. Four of their previous six games for fans have led to investigations, with FIFA and UEFA imposing separate stadium bans over homophobic banners and monkey chants. At Wembley, however, many of the 800-odd UK supporters were believed to have come from the UK.
So, as Evain points out, ‘How does closing the stadium in Hungary affect what happened at Wembley?’
Club football is not immune – in France, Marseille and Nice the game was contaminated in August
Arsenal fans also clashed with their Burnley counterparts at Turf Moor in September
The roots of this recidivism go back decades, but over the past 11 years, a close relationship has reportedly developed between right-wing politicians and ultragroups.
Italy has seen similar cross-pollinations. The Hungarian Carpathian Brigade in black was created to deal with violence and unite rival factions. As they grew, neo-Nazis crept back in.
Fortunately, Pearson says that in England ‘football firms are usually, with a few exceptions, quite apolitical’. But the backlash over Black Lives Matter proves that nasty elements can still filter into modern grounds.
“There is no doubt that after the Brexit referendum there has been a swing to the right and racial expression in general and in football has become more commonplace,” said Pearson.
One problem has plagued both sides of the Channel for years: stewarding.
Hungary has a terrible record and four of their last six games for fans have been marred
A police offer hits a Hungarian fan in the stands as police try to keep them calm at Wembley
“They are poorly paid, poorly educated, it is a very unstable job. And the Covid crisis has not helped,” says Evain.
“You can have the best infrastructure, CCTV, anything you want in your brand new stadium. If you don’t pay people at the end of the food chain correctly to do their job, they’re not going to put their health at risk.’
A solution to this could help treat some of the symptoms of soccer problems. But what about prevention? “Right now the only two reactions seem to be in play: campaigns or collective punishment – you close stadiums or grandstands,” says Evain. “We have answered these problems in exactly the same way for the past 15 to 20 years. Maybe that won’t work. Maybe we should do something else.’
But have those penalties ever gone far enough? Hungary, for example, was fined £158,000 after the racist abuse of England players Jude Bellingham and Raheem Sterling last month. Would supporters think twice if they knew points deductions or exclusions could follow?
Stewarding is regularly a big problem as the majority are underpaid and poorly educated
“If you’re unlucky enough to be in a shop that gets robbed, you won’t be banned from the supermarket,” Evain notes. And why punish players for problems beyond their control?
Instead, he believes, football must accept that it ‘cannot solve this alone’. Pearson agrees. England tackled historical abuse, he explains, through methods such as self-control, legislation and changes in policing. The only problem? That requires political will.
After a recent sentence, Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto called UEFA “pathetic and cowardly”. That should not stop other countries from leading the way.
‘Football has to work together with the rest of society to find new answers’, says Evain. ‘Because always the same reaction, if there is no progress? It shows it doesn’t work.’