After the infamous riot at the FA Cup quarter-final match between Luton Town and Millwall, senior representatives of the Football Association were summoned to Downing Street to discuss the matter with the Prime Minister. ‘What are you going to do about your hooliganism?’, asked Margaret Thatcher, perhaps mindful of the extent to which divide and rule can be a useful tool for a politician. Ted Croker, the secretary and chief executive of the Football Association, replied, ‘We don’t want this made public, but these people are society’s problems and we don’t want your hooligans in our sport, prime minister.’
It was a risky policy to say this to a politician who may have been at the point of banning professional football altogether – it is perhaps instructive that Croker was subsequently the first person leaving such a senior position within the FA not to receive a knighthood – and it might also be argued that, at that particular time, it might have been unwise of somebody from the FA to be trying to fight back in the way Croker did, but he did, in his comment, touch on a fundamental truth about the relationship between football and society in a broader sense. To a point, football is merely a reflection of the society within which it exists, though politicians, for whom this is an obviously uncomfortable truth, will usually be likely to disregard this when trouble does rear its head at matches.
It should go without saying, of course, that the supporters of any football club should have the inalienable right to travel abroad to watch their team play should they wish to, but after a second premeditated attack on them in Europe this season, there will be supporters of Tottenham Hotspur who, this morning, will be wondering whether it’s actually worth the hassle and cost to travel somewhere in order to have a gang of European fascists turn up and in a bar the night before a match and set upon them. Last time around it was a bar in Rome at which Spurs supporters were attacked, which marked the beginning of a dismal twenty-four hours or so which saw Lazio’s support live down to all expectations of them with racist and antisemitic chanting which, when coupled with similar behaviour during an earlier match against the Portuguese side Maribor, earned the club a €120,000 fine for their troubles.
Last night, around two hundred Spurs supporters were gathered at a bar called the Smoking Dog pub in the city ahead of the club’s Europa League tie against Olympique Lyonnais when they were attacked by men wearing balaclavas who reportedly smashed the windows and battered down the door, while those inside barricaded themselves in with tables and chairs whilst waiting for the police to arrive. Three people had to be taken to hospital as a result, and the atmosphere at Le Stade de Gerland is likely to be markedly more tense than it would otherwise have been as a result of last night’s incident.
There is clearly an pattern here which needs to be lanced before it threatens to spin out of control, but it is not necessarily one that UEFA can do anything about, although it does, perhaps, show up their pitiful response to the racism seen at the under-21 match between Serbia and England for what it was. There is little suggestion at the time of writing that the events of last night in Lyon were anything much to do with football at all, let alone the supporters of Lyon. Antisemitism has a long and ignoble history across the continent and it has been widely repeated that incidents of it have increased over at least the last ten years or so, not least in France, where a 58% increase last year – 614 anti-Semitic acts were documented throughout the country in 2012, compared to 389 in 2011 – has been reported. Somewhat troublingly, the English-born owner of the bar has already confirmed that he had already advised the police earlier this week that there was a risk of such an incident occurring last night – a warning which was, it would seem, ignored.
In view of this, the question of why there wasn’t already a police presence at this particular bar would seem to be a valid one, as would that of why nobody took the hint that was clear when Spurs played in Rome earlier this season that the club’s supporters could become a target for such vermin. There is nothing to suggest that the Spurs supporters were involved in any sort of antagonistic behaviour themselves last night, and they have a right to be protected. The question of why the police were not there to offer protection when they had been warned of the risk of a premeditated attack is a very serious one.
There is no reason why the supporters of any football club should have to find themselves in the position in which Spurs supporters found themselves in last night in Lyon and a couple of months ago in Rome. However, it should be added that to react violently to it would not only be exactly what those doing the attacking want in the first place, but would also give everybody for whom this sort of behaviour is an unwelcome reminder of an issue for which they are responsible just the excuse they need to palm their problems off in the direction of “English football hooligans,” and we can safely bet that there will be many with vested interests in doing so seeking to do exactly this, should events such as those which have occurred in Lyon and Rome recently do come to form the beginning of a pattern. Spurs supporters – indeed, the supporters of all clubs – deserve better than the dereliction of duty seen in Lyon last night.
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