Last night’s game between England and Bulgaria made history, and all the wrong kind.
UEFA stood up for the black players in the away team who were being racially abused during the match, with two tannoy announcements to supporters threatening the suspension of the match if it continued. Police moved in to the section responsible. The match went on.
Darkness has fallen across much of football in recent years.
A problem that many thought had been washed out of the stands is back, with a vengeance.
Today Celtic fans wait to find out if we’ll be allowed in Lazio’s ground next month. We find ourselves, therefore, in the perverse position of hoping that racists are not punished too severely because we’d get punished with them … UEFA’s rules definitely need some tweaking.
But the abhorrent behaviour in Bulgaria last night makes it clear that something needs to be done and that something has to give. UEFA stood with the England players and made it clear they would be willing to abandon the match. That’s a step forward … of a sort.
It makes the skin crawl to think that this is what it has come to though.
For all UEFA’s rules can punish the innocent as well as the guilty, it is inconceivable that the guilty simply be allowed to do whatever they please. There is too much of this disease in football, and it has to be ruthlessly tackled. UEFA at least tries to do something.
There are various problems in stands in Scotland, but the biggest of them is the one the SFA is most afraid to tackle. Calls for Strict Liability aim to lump all the problems in the stands together, as if there were not solutions for each of them individually.
The more I listen to the SFA banging the Strict Liability drum, the more I hear Boris Johnson telling the Commons that a European deal is possible if only they stop trying to hold him to account. He then goes to Europe and offers them a smorgasbord of options they couldn’t possibly even consider.
The talk back in London is a smokescreen; this guy doesn’t want a deal.
And this is the same thing the SFA is doing with Strict Liability; they’ve proposed a solution so broad and sweeping that clubs do not want to touch it with a 20-foot pole, and in the meantime they don’t have to confront any of the problems at all.
Strict Liability is not something the SFA wants to have the power to enforce … the lack of that power is their excuse for doing nothing.
The problem with Strict Liability is that clubs could find themselves getting punished on the back of the behaviour of a single individual, and the SFA knows full well that the clubs are never going to accept anything like that. But sectarian singing in the stands is so widespread at times that even blaming a “small minority” is to ignore a much larger problem. The SFA knows what the obstacle to clubs supporting Strict Liability is; the single coin thrower can shut a stand or lose a club points.
That’s never going to get through at an AGM.
If the issue is flares and fireworks, that’s a police matter as both of those things are against the law. There’s no need whatsoever for football to be getting involved in that stuff. Leave it to the people who are paid to deal with it. Let them do so.
If the issue is throwing coins or objects, again that stuff is against the law. It, too, is an issue for the police and in this day and age of mass surveillance it should be relatively simple to find the culprits and deal with them effectively.
But we know that the real issue in our stands is sectarianism, and unlike what many believe the virulent anti-Catholic and anti-Irish type we have here is not, and it has never been, limited to one particular club but a problem you can hear everywhere.
Some of the worst emanates from the crowds at Tynecastle and Fir Park.
The level of bile Celtic players and fans sometimes get subjected to at those grounds is beyond belief, and it was, of course, at Hearts where Lennon was attacked as he stood on the touchline doing his job. Anti-Catholic hatred is commonplace in our stands.
And it happens week to week, even on the days when the opposition doesn’t play in green and anyone who says they’ve never heard it at a non-Celtic, non-Sevco, SPL game is, I’m afraid, a flat out liar because I know for a fact it happens.
Sectarianism and racism in Scotland are intertwined.
UEFA has decreed that anti-Catholic and in particular anti-Irish bigotry is racism for all intents and purposes, and there is not a single one of us who would disagree. This is a problem entirely peculiar to our own wee scabby part of the world; it is the Scottish disease and decades of hand-wringing have not changed it.
When sectarian abuse is pouring from the stands our players should be allowed to walk off the park until it stops.
Whether that’s preceded by a PA system announcement or not is for the governing bodies themselves to decide, but this problem needs to be tackled and in a way that works. In a way that gets results. The issue is not going away by itself.
And abandoning the game has to have wider repercussions than just players walking off and fans on all sides losing their ticket money; it has to come with forfeiture of the points for the offending team, as well as deductions on a sliding scale based on previous behaviour, and Strict Liability isn’t necessary for something like that to be brought into effect.
Deal with this problem on its own, as it stands, and deal with it decisively as UEFA has done at the club level and in the international games instead of trying to shoehorn it into a series of measures that nobody will accept and this would pass much more easily.
The game here talks about “zero tolerance” but talk is all it is … it’s about time we saw action, and once more UEFA shows us the way.
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