Turning football fans into snitches

It’s time Old Firm fans stopped telling tales on one another and united against the authorities’ behaviour police.

Kevin Rooney

Topics Politics

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As if next Sunday’s Scottish Premier League title decider between Celtic and Rangers wasn’t tense enough, the news that Celtic manager Neil Lennon has received another parcel bomb has got the media in a spin about sectarianism in Scottish football – again.

And this is only days after UEFA, the game’s governing body in Europe, threatened to fine Rangers football club and force them to play two games behind closed doors after accusations that fans sang sectarian songs at their recent Europa League games with Dutch side PSV Eindhoven. If the complaints are upheld, the fine and loss of revenue from ticket sales and television rights could add up to over £2million – a hefty burden for a team already mired in debt.

But, despite being a Celtic fan, I am not revelling in Rangers’ misery. Quite the opposite. I am not offended in the slightest by a few fans singing familiar loyalist songs. But I do take great issue with the nasty, vindictive policing of words and behaviour that is now infecting football.

No one quite knows who reported the sectarian singing to the organisation leading the charge against Rangers – the pompously titled Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE). If it was Celtic fans who snitched, then they should know better. Only last month Celtic manager Neil Lennon was subject to the same kind of snitching when hundreds of Rangers fans reported him for making a supposedly racist remark to Rangers’ controversial black player El-Hadj Diouf. Professional lip readers were brought in to study TV footage and Lennon was questioned by police. It was only when Diouf himself stepped in to back Lennon’s denials that the incident was put to bed.

In the old days, Celtic and Rangers fans were notorious for trading insulting diatribes across the football field. Now the IRA songs and jibes about the Irish Famine are almost a thing of the past, with fans being too terrified of fines, lifetime bans and a long list of sanctions from the authorities. However, instead of football chants at the game, today’s fans have taken to other more sinister methods of playing out their hostility toward rival teams. So now we have a situation where fans are using new media including YouTube, Twitter and Facebook to monitor the behaviour of rivals and expose every expression of sectarianism or ‘offensive’ remark made.

This pernicious campaign of spying on and monitoring the behaviour of other fans has been encouraged and sanctioned by a host of self-appointed guardians of football fans’ behaviour. Groups like FARE, Kick Racism out of Football and its Scottish equivalent Nil By Mouth have emerged as modern-day missionaries, descending on the game of football to preach the commandments of good behaviour on the pitch and terraces.

The recent actions by FARE and UEFA are part of an increasingly draconian trend of monitoring and regulating the behaviour of football fans – especially those supporting the Old Firm teams of Celtic and Rangers. A plethora of rules and codes of conducts govern every aspect of fans’ behaviour: don’t stand; don’t swear; don’t sing a list of prescribed songs or chants; don’t display certain banners; don’t wear certain t-shirts; don’t drink on the way to games. Much of what characterised Celtic-Rangers games of the past is now both demonised and criminalised in an atmosphere where politicians and other polite observers are given license to speak about the fans who refuse to conform as being like animals. Tom English, in his column for Scotland on Sunday, described the Rangers fans who insist on continuing to sing ‘these songs’ as ‘the vermin rump… who will not shut up’. And even Celtic manager Lennon has this week referred to sectarian behaviour as ‘incurable’, as if these fans are suffering from a fatal disease.

And what we do with vermin and the diseased? We control them.

At last week’s cup semi-final game against Aberdeen, I watched Celtic blaze to a 4-0 victory on the pitch. It should have been enjoyable. But in the stands, I felt as if I was part of a Monty Python sketch as lines of police officers and stewards walked slowly and menacingly through the crowds every few minutes. In response to a polite question from me about what they were up to, they politely replied that they were ‘looking out for offensive behaviour’.

In a new twist on undercover policing, the Strathclyde constabulary have already announced that they will place at least 35 plain clothes police officers in the crowds at Easter Sunday’s Old Firm match. This is a derby that has already been brought forward to avoid the risks and tension of an end-of-season clash. Not only are we now to have every aspect of our behaviour policed, but we are also to be banned from enjoying an exciting climax to the season.

As I have pointed out in previous articles on spiked, the increasingly draconian reaction to the sectarianism at Scottish football games is in inverse proportion to the reality of sectarianism in Scotland (and even at Old Firm games). When English refers to a ‘rump’, he lets slip the fact that the number of fans who hark back to the days when Old Firm games represented a re-run of the war between the British state and the IRA is now tiny. This is not because the authorities have stamped out sectarianism; it’s simply because that political conflict is an increasingly remote bit of history which means little to most younger football fans.

So what is the greater problem here? A few unreconstructed Rangers fans singing some ancient anti-Catholic songs to a bemused Dutch crowd or the wholescale draconian restriction on the freedom of speech and movement of football fans? Celtic and Rangers should remain rivals at the game, but should join forces off the pitch to resist these attacks on civil liberties and free speech.

Kevin Rooney teaches government and politics at a London school.

spiked’s sports columnist Duleep Allirajah is away.

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Topics Politics


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