Are Chelsea and English football facing an incurable disease?

Compared to the militant scenes of hooligan street skirmishes and thuggish terrace warfare from the 1970s and 1980s, on the surface it seems a rather innocuous act; refusing a local Parisian access to a Metro train, commandeered by a rabble of typically unruly away fans en route to Chelsea’s first European night of 2015.

Yet, the connotations and malicious undertones cannot be ignored. This is a group of all-white males, supporters of a football club with historical ties to the National Front movement, pushing and shoving a bemused black man back onto the platform at Richelieu-Drouot Metro station and heckling him with abuse. If that was all fun and games interpreted hyperbolically by the media, the subsequent chant was certainly not; “We’re racist, and that’s the way we like it.

It’s clearly not the way all Chelsea fans like it. After all, we’re talking about a club owned by a Jewish Russian and managed by a Portuguese, that recently crowned Ivory Coast international Didier Drogba the greatest player in their history, and were one of the Premier League’s first to benefit from a holistic influx of foreign talent in the mid-90s. From the Blues’ 25-man registered Premier League squad, twelve are non-White, only six are English, and their star player, Eden Hazard, is a practicing Muslim.

So the paradox is obvious. How can you enjoy Didier Drogba’s winning penalty in the 2012 Champions League final, and then abuse a stranger for being of the same ethnicity? How could you cheer for Marcel Desailly, Michael Essien or Soloman Kalou, and then treat a man on his way home from work as a second-class citizen just because he’s black? Heck, how can you even enjoy a Champions League night that starts, intervals and ends with the clear message of ‘No to Racism’, endorsed by every leading footballer in the game today?

If all Chelsea fans felt the same as those embarrassments on the Metro, their entire association with the west London club and the beautiful game would be a constant juxtaposition of their political and racial beliefs. Apparently, that’s a headache only the mindless at Stamford Bridge can handle.

Yet, the incident is a worrying reminder of the club’s past, and more importantly that racist, divisive views still persist in the darkest corners of its fan base. The Shed Boys and their successors, the Chelsea Headhunters, are notorious for their associations with white supremacist groups like the National Front and Combat 18, depicted in Colin Ward’s book Steaming In and touched upon in Donal MacIntyre’s 1999 documentary for the BBC. In the last ten years, 19 of the Premier League’s 174 Banning Orders for racist chants have been issued to Blues fans – the second most of any club in the division.

The ‘No to Racism’, ‘Respect’ and ‘Kick It Out’ campaigns, many of which Chelsea have actively participated in since the John Terry racism scandal in 2012, give the velour of a club and sport that have moved on from its dark ages. To some, the actions of the Blues supporters at Richelieu-Drouot and the violent scenes outside Parc de Princes last night will constitute a rare anomaly for a club so culturally and ethnically diverse and increasing in appeal to middle class families.

But last night proved that Chelsea’s hooligan cells, and the bigotry that often accompanies them, have not gone away – and I feel it will be the same case for many clubs throughout the country. My beloved Charlton Athletic is considered to be one of the most inclusive clubs in England, but as recently as 2012, nine fans were arrested for chanting ‘there’s only one Gary Dobson’ in honour of the Stephen Lawrence murderer on a London train.

The fact of the matter is that there’s still a significant segment of fans who view disorder – or ‘agro’ – as part of the away day experience; unfortunately, the social taboos of racism, homophobia and anti-Semitism are among the most effective vehicles to strike fear into the unexpecting public and create a mob mentality.

Sadly, racism amongst the terraces¬†is an incurable disease; in a crowd of disillusioned working-class males, the most radical, aggressive voices will always be the loudest, and since the release of films such as Football Factory and Green Street in the 2000s, a disturbing glamorisation of 70s and 80s hooligan culture has persisted – leaving many fans envious of and isolated from the corporate world football now thrives in. It’s certainly a far cry from the adrenaline-fuelled, argo-inspired fan experience their fathers and uncles were accustomed to.

So the only option left is maintain the pressure as much as possible. Chelsea have acted swiftly in condemning the actions of their neanderthalic supporters yesterday evening,  supporting any criminal charges against them and promising to issue further banning orders for any season ticket holders found guilty. The FA have followed up with a likewise statement of solidarity on the issue.

But is it enough to quash the threat of similar events in the future? Probably not. Racism is a societal problem, as much as it is a footballing problem, after all, and if you’ve witnessed the incredible heroics of Didier Drogba over the last decade and still somehow view black people as inferior, you’re clearly beyond all rationale.

The only thing the authorities, Chelsea and the FA can do is keep these idiots away from stadiums, pubs and public transport on matchdays for as long as the law allows. The more that are weeded out, eventually, the weaker they’ll become – but at some subservient level, racism always will continue to rear its ugly head and besmirch the name of English football.


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