As ever, the statement made all the right noises: ‘FIFA has a very clear zero-tolerance stance against such abhorrent behaviour,’ it read.
They have become rather good with words, football’s authorities. Unfortunately, after another night marred by violence, the question remains: what are FIFA, or anyone, going to do about it?
On Tuesday, Group I was the hive of disorder: Hungary’s trip to Wembley saw police clash with away fans and the alleged racial abuse of a steward. Tickets had also found their way into the hands of Poland supporters who joined the Hungary fans in causing mayhem.
British police officers strike Hungary fans with batons during unrest at Wembley on Tuesday
One Hungary fan is seen bleeding from his head after the clashes with baton-wielding police
In Albania, officials halted the World Cup qualifier against Poland after objects rained down from the terraces. Albania are next to visit Wembley — the forecast does not look great, does it?
Not that we are in any position to hurl stones. England shattered their own glass house when a stampede of ticketless supporters marred the final of Euro 2020.
And herein lies the problem: those dark clouds do not appear to be clearing. Not long ago, England fans booed their own players for promoting racial equality.
Elsewhere on Tuesday, Manchester United’s Anthony Elanga suffered alleged racist abuse by an opponent during Sweden Under 21s’ game with Italy.
Club football has not escaped unharmed. Fans of Arsenal and Burnley clashed at Turf Moor; European matches involving Leicester, Napoli, Marseille, Galatasaray, West Ham, Rapid Vienna, Antwerp and Eintracht Frankfurt have been stained by fights, fireworks and smoke bombs.
Fans from Lille and Marseille are banned from travelling to away games for the rest of the year, while Lens and Angers were also punished following several violent outbreaks.
Smoke bombs were also let off inside Wembley as police struggled to contain the away fans
So what is going on? Are these a string of isolated incidents or symptoms of a worrying trend?
‘When we talk about a return of the “dark ages”, it’s not true,’ insists Ronan Evain, executive director at Football Supporters Europe. ‘It doesn’t mean the situation is acceptable at the moment but the vast majority of European stadiums are far, far safer than they were 20 years ago.’
He adds: ‘At this stage I’m uncertain there is a significant increase in incidents.’ Instead he cites a few problem countries — Hungary, Italy, France and England.
Professor Geoff Pearson, an author who has studied football crowds and policing since the 1990s, agrees. ‘It is always a local problem,’ he says. The problem for those trying to keep a lid on it all? Domestic issues are rooted in domestic problems.
Take Hungary, whose rap sheet is swelling. Four of their previous six games in front of fans have prompted investigation, with FIFA and UEFA imposing separate stadium bans over homophobic banners and monkey chants. At Wembley, however, many of the 800-odd away supporters were believed to be UK-based.
So, as Evain points out: ‘How does closing the stadium in Hungary have an influence on what happened at Wembley?’
Club football is not immune – in France, Marseille and Nice’s game in August was tainted
Arsenal fans clashed with their Burnley counterparts at Turf Moor back in September, too
The roots of this repeat offending stretch back decades but over the past 11 years a close relationship has reportedly developed between right-wing politicians and groups of ultras.
Italy has seen similar cross-pollination. Hungary’s black-shirted Carpathian Brigade was formed to tackle violence and unite rival factions. As they grew, neo-Nazism crept back in.
Fortunately, Pearson says that in England ‘football firms have usually, with only a few exceptions, been fairly non-political’. But the backlash over Black Lives Matter proves nasty elements can still filter into modern grounds.
‘There is no doubt that post the Brexit referendum there has been a lurch to the right and that racial expression just generally and in football has become more commonplace,’ says Pearson.
For years one problem has been allowed to fester on both sides of the Channel: stewarding.
Hungary have an awful record and four of their last six games in front of fans have been marred
A police offer strikes a Hungary fan in the stands as police try to keep them calm at Wembley
‘They are badly paid, badly trained, it’s a very unstable job. And the Covid crisis hasn’t helped,’ says Evain.
‘You can have the best infrastructure, CCTV, everything you want in your brand new stadium. If at the end of the food chain you don’t pay people correctly to do their job, they are not going to risk their health.’
Fixing that could help treat some symptoms of football’s ills. But what of prevention? ‘At the moment the only two responses in play seem to be: campaigns or collective punishments — you close stadiums or away stands,’ says Evain. ‘We’ve been answering these issues in the exact same way for the last 15 to 20 years. Maybe that doesn’t work. Maybe we need to do something different.’
But have those punishments ever gone far enough? Hungary, for instance, were fined £158,000 after the racist abuse of England players Jude Bellingham and Raheem Sterling last month. Would supporters think twice if they knew points deductions or expulsion could follow?
Stewarding is regularly a major issue as the majority are underpaid and badly trained
‘If you are unlucky enough to be in a shop that is robbed, you don’t get banned from supermarkets,’ Evain points out. And why punish players for problems out of their control?
Instead, he believes, football must accept it ‘can’t solve this by itself’. Pearson agrees. England tackled historical abuse, he explains, through methods such as self-policing, legislation, and changes in policing. The only snag? That requires political will.
Following recent punishment, Hungary’s foreign minister, Peter Szijjarto, branded UEFA ‘pitiful and cowardly’. That shouldn’t stop other countries leading the way.
‘Football needs to work with the rest of society to find new answers,’ says Evain. ‘Because the same response over and over again, if there is no progress? It shows it doesn’t work.’