Would UEFA intervention make any difference?

Jermain Defoe, Tottenham HotspurTottenham’s Europa League clash with Lazio was marred with racial abuse from home fans towards the travelling Spurs supporters and violence away from the stadium. Lazio’s violent following known as The Eagles – one of Italy’s hooligan organisations commonly referred to as ‘Ultras’ – have been held responsible by the media for an attack on a small group of Spurs fans in a pub in the Rome, leaving one man in a critical condition and ten more wounded, however the club’s president Claudio Lotito has refused to point the finger at the Lazio hooligans.

“It is too easy to speak about attacks by people with their faces covered and say that they were Lazio fans. I maintain Lazio fans had nothing to do with it,” 55-year-old Lotito told reporters following the attacks. Meanwhile, UEFA still maintain that hooliganism is not a footballing issue.

At the match itself, Lazio fans chanted racial slurs towards the Tottenham support throughout the 0-0 draw. Most notably, the chant of “Tottenham Juden” was heard ringing out across the Stadio Olimpico. During the alternate fixture at White Hart Lane, Biancocelesti fans made monkey noises at White Hart Lane, directed towards Jermain Defoe.

UEFA fined the Italian club £35,000 for the away fans’ obscenities, which will add to the long list of small monetary penalties handed out to national football associations and clubs by the European organisation as they continue to take a lenient stance on racism.

But should UEFA be expected to do anything? How can they realistically change the attitudes and culture of a club’s supporters, or for that matter a nation’s supporters?

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It is true that the fines are minimal – Nicklas Bendtner’s Paddy Power underwear fiasco earned him a larger penalty fine for undeclared sponsorship than any club or country has for failing to control their fans. Similarly, the case set up by UEFA examining the England Under 21s match in Serbia in which Danny Rose and other black players were subjected to racial abuse has been delayed until next month because it requires “further investigation”.

The Serbian FA have denied allegations of racism, claiming Rose behaved in a provocative and vulgar manner throughout the match and have released the bizarre and ridiculously titled video “Danny Rose is lying to whom?” – a small collection of segments from the match where the Sunderland left-back is not subject to intense monkey chanting from home fans. Clarke Carlisle has called for Serbia to be banned from competing until their fans can be controlled, but UEFA continue to distance themselves from the issues of racism and hooliganism.

It would certainly not be overreacting to see UEFA’s policy as somewhat hypocritical. Following the Heysel Stadium disaster, English clubs were banned from competing in European competitions for five years until a solution could be found for the “English disease” of hooliganism. But, would banning clubs or countries actually achieve anything? Could it even make the problem worse?

The political, social and psychological implications of football are often overlooked. Newspapers are often filled with headlines such as “ban the thugs”, simplifying the issue and working towards it’s further detriment – a particular example that comes to mind is Manchester United’s Red Army being labelled as “barbarians” by newspapers in the 1980s, to which the United faithful at Old Trafford replied by singing “WE EAT HUMANS”. Clubs have an identity, and for good or worse that identity cannot be ignored or simply transformed overnight and branding that identity with negative connotations only escalates the problem.

Paolo Di Canio, on his return to Lazio, the club he personally affiliates to, often celebrated goals with the Fascist salute, which was warmly embraced by the Italian fans. The Serie A club has historic links to fascism dating back to the days of Mussolini – the deceased dictator even built Stadio Olimpico as part of his planned Mussolini Forum. Di Canio told reporters after his first instance of raising the salute that he is “a fascist, not a racist” and although it is true that the two are not mutually exclusive, both racism and fascism appears to be a heavy influence on Lazio fans and their identity. At the time, Silvio Berlusconi defended the current Swindon Town manager, stating: “He just does it for the fans, not out of malice. He’s a good boy, just a bit of a show-off.”

UEFA’s fines are a rather toothless punishment in response to the appalling actions of fans, and the organisation could certainly do more to push the issues of racism and hooliganism on to national football organisations as well as clubs, but as it stands, what difference can they truly achieve? Even banning clubs from European or international football would simply make martyrs of their fans and no doubt heighten their hostilities towards opponents.

Change takes years. It was widely believed that racism had been eradicated from English football, but over the past few years, and especially the past few months the issue has dominated the sport. It Is clear to see there is a glass ceiling, especially in management and coaching positions, and there are still groups of fans who find hissing at White Hart Lane acceptable behaviour. It would be premature to suggest England has gotten over its problems of the 1970s and 1980s. West Ham fans during the weekend’s London derby with Spurs sung “Viva Lazio” and “Can we stab you every week” just days after the attack in Rome.

Change must come from within; it cannot be thrust upon a subject from a higher power. And with the Serbian FA and Lazio football club wiping their hands clean of the allegations held against them, even denying and defending the actions of their fans, cultural improvement does not seem to be on the horizon.

English hooliganism was not successfully tackled until the early 1990s, where clubs worked in tandem with the police to effectively stamp out violence between rival fans. With the case of Italy, the Ultras have made football stadiums fortresses to ambush Italian police, and there are constant skirmishes between violent groups of fans and Italian officers away from the grounds and throughout the towns and cities.

If the Italian authorities cannot contain the Ultras, what chance do UEFA really have?


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