Extreme behavior is still tolerated in the name of supporters culture

“So-called fans” is a phrase that springs into action when clubs want to separate a tiny minority of badly behaved supporters from the rest. It suggests that miscreants who heap shame on themselves, and by association their club and their sport, are divorced from the game: not really part of it; an extremist fringe of interlopers.

The phrase has been aired frequently in the wake of the racist incident involving Chelsea fans on the Paris metro. The usage is understandable, but it’s naive at best, disingenuous at worse. Because in my experience of attending maybe 700 matches in England, it’s precisely their status as fans that encourages a small percentage of people to believe they have the right to behave badly.

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There’s a subset who think being among a group on a matchday is justification for actions that would be completely unacceptable, and probably would not happen, elsewhere. A segment who feel arrogantly entitled to act how they want in public, just because they are soccer fans. It’s like the boundaries of normal social behavior dissolve if they put on a scarf, a replica jersey, and — very likely — down a few beers.

These people have an inability to switch off, or even just tone down, the tribalism, aggression and “them against us” mentality when they leave the stadium. That traveling for a match, they’re entitled to a sort of diplomatic immunity from prosecution for cretinous acts performed in the name of soccer fandom. That they’re an invasion force temporarily colonizing a foreign territory and subjugating the populace to their rules.

Discrimination, in one form, is an inherent part of being a fan: you identify yourself with one set of people — your fellow supporters of the same team — and define your behavior in relation to another group, letting those differences provoke antagonism, contempt, even hatred. You suspend any feelings of empathy, compassion, fraternity. You focus on differences, not similarities.

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But as the incident after the Champions League game in Paris showed, you don’t even have to advertise yourself as a rival fan to be on the receiving end. You don’t have to be at a match. You can be an ordinary civilian who’s unlucky enough to cross their path.

While incidents of physical violence have subsided since the 1980s, verbal hooliganism has persisted; possibly even increased. To be in the vicinity of groups of fans, inside or outside grounds, is sometimes to hear chants that are a bizarre combination of infantile behavior mixed with very adult allusions, like the most perverted kind of nursery rhymes you could imagine.

Nothing is off-limits. Rival fans still sometimes sing songs about the Munich air disaster of 1958 to taunt Manchester United.

A couple of years ago, after a North London Derby, I had the misfortune to share a tube carriage with a few Arsenal fans who, to amuse themselves, made hissing sounds designed to mimic the release of gas in Nazi death chambers. They sang about Jews being gassed, all because Tottenham is known as a club with a large Jewish following.

Asked individually, in another context, I doubt any one of them would have advocated anti-Semitic views (or at least, aired them so publicly and confidently). But because it was soccer, and they were Arsenal and the team had just played Tottenham, it was somehow OK – just a few guys having a laugh. That’s always the excuse: we were just having a laugh. If you don’t see the funny side, that’s your problem.

One of the fans who was in the Paris subway car reportedly said the “we’re racist and that’s the way we like it” chant that followed the refusal to let a black man board the train was in fact a song about John Terry, the Chelsea captain, who was acquitted of a racially aggravated offense by a court in 2011 but found guilty by the English FA of abuse that made a reference to race.

Not much of a defense, is it? “We weren’t being racist towards a random stranger, we were making fun of our club figurehead’s racism scandal, because we’re blindly loyal to our own no matter the circumstances.”

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The policy of soccer’s authorities is generally to make clubs take responsibility for their fans, by meting out fines and stadium bans, for example. But clubs aren’t parents or schoolteachers. There is only so much they can do, given that some people, when told how they should behave, will deliberately rebel and do the opposite; and that racism remains endemic in society.

In England and Wales in 2013-14, for example, there were 44,480 hate crimes recorded by the police – an increase of 5 percent compared with the previous two years. Some 84 percent were race hate crimes.

Racism isn’t going to get kicked out of soccer until it’s kicked out of society. But maybe the sport can do a better job of establishing a supporter culture that respects the boundaries and conventions of civilized behavior, instead of one that sometimes believes it’s above the law, a world unto itself.