The far-right has long seen European football as a recruiting ground. In Britain, informants and even players have claimed that neo-Nazi groups often infiltrated groups of football fans. Similarly, fears have previously been raised about neo-Nazi elements establishing themselves in various countries, including Germany, Spain, and a myriad of other European countries.
These troubling links between the politics of the far- right and European football should cause us to pause and reflect on the “Jewish” character that many European football clubs have assumed in their rivalries. Famously, Tottenham Hotspur in the Premier League has been known as the “Yid Army” for decades. Whilst Tottenham has always had a significant Jewish supporter base, the epithet “Yid” is used both by non-Jewish supporters, and by non-Jewish supporters of opposing teams, who often use it as an insult.
Opposition to the use of the term is often dismissed as over-sensitivity. Many Tottenham Hotspur fans view the term as affectionate, and opponents often see derogatory use of it as solely attached to the club, with antisemitic intent absent. Yet, many matches between Tottenham and other London clubs will be marked by hissing noises from the stands – an attempt to mimic the sound of the gas chambers, as well as multiple puerile chants clearly targeting Jews. The extent of these chants is well documented, examples can be read about here and here. This antisemitism has even previously escalated into a stabbing.
Several recent incidents on the continent illustrate just how deeply ingrained this antisemitism has become in what is referred to by its fans as the “beautiful game”. Last week, Lazio fans plastered images of Anne Frank in a Roma jersey around the stadium that the two rivals share, and the BBC reports that antisemitic slogans such as “Roma fans are Jews” were also found in the stadium. Whilst Roma is not a club that has a reputation as an ostensibly “Jewish” team, like Spurs and Ajax are, it does have a large Jewish following, something almost certainly not lost on many Lazio fans, who have previously used the Holocaust to taunt their rivals before; in 1998, Lazio fans flew a banner reading “Auschwitz is Your Homeland. The Ovens are Your Homes”. The Italian Football Federation have announced that a hearing is to be held, which Lazio representatives will have to attend.
The reaction to the Anne Frank stickers was fierce, but time will tell if there is any bite behind the bark. Sergio Mattarella, Italy’s President, called the stickers “inhumane”, and “an insult and a threat”. Anxious to salvage the club’s reputation, Lazio President Claudio Lotito visited a local Synagogue, yet a local news source claims that a recording shows him mocking the visit, which he allegedly treated as a mere charade.
One initiative taken that was taken following these disgraceful scenes was that Lazio appeared in t-shirts bearing Anne Frank’s face to display their opposition to the Antisemitism of their fans. Across Serie A, extracts from Anne Frank’s diary and Primo Levi’s “If This Is A Man” were read at matches, followed by a minute of applause. Yet across Serie A, sections of fans ignored the displays, or worse. Hundreds of Juventus fans allegedly turned their backs and sang the Italian National Anthem. Worse still, 500 Lazio fans outside the Stadium sang Nazi songs and performed Nazi salutes during the ceremony. Crotone fans also reportedly sang their club’s songs as the reading was taking place. Many of the fans taking part in these despicable displays are thought to be “ultras”, a word used for football hooligans in Italy.
There are growing calls to permanently ban those involved with such displays of antisemitism. The police have already identified 16 individuals suspected of being involved with the Lazio incidents.
These events could easily lead one to the impression that efforts to combat antisemitism in football is futile. The response – involving police investigations, a genuine effort to increase awareness, widespread, unequivocal condemnation from political and sporting leaders, and attempts to build bridges with the Jewish community – was thorough and generally appeared to be carried out in good faith. Yet if this is followed up with prosecutions and stadium bans, the authorities will be in a position to demonstrate the antisemitism in football is completely unacceptable and will meet strict sanctions, something which is yet to be achieved on a widespread basis in London derbies involving Tottenham. In order to seriously tackle this problem, football fans need to acknowledge the uncomfortable fact that racism and antisemitism are still disturbingly common in Europe. The language of antisemitism does not stand in isolation, but is a continuation of the antisemitism prevalent in society at large. Until this is recognised, and perpetrators are consistently identified and sanctioned, antisemitism will always enjoy a safe refuge in the hearts of European societies – their national sport.
English football once had a far more pronounced problem with racism, far- right extremism and hooliganism. Groups such as the National Front determinedly sought to recruit football fans, producing a magazine, The Bulldog, which devoted pages to covering the sport. The Bulldog was freely distributed in many football stadia in the country. After the Heysel football tragedy, a crowd crush in Belgium at a match between Liverpool and Juventus, leaflets for the far-right British National Party were found in the terraces, according to Christos Kassimeris, a prominent academic writing on racism in football. Many of these activities seem to coincide with the decline of the far-right as a political force following the advent of the Thatcher government, as many of its target supporters were drawn towards mainstream conservatism, which had been repackaged to have a greater appeal to sections of the white working class. The Bulldog was founded in 1981 and the Heysel tragedy was in 1985. Senior National Front figures such as Martin Wingfield and Martin Webster both publicly stated that various factions of the National Front targeted football fans in their recruitment according to Anthony King in The European Ritual. Christos Kassimeris and others have suggested that the decline in political support for the National Front caused them to increase their activities, dropping previous pretence of having a broad economic program, and instead focusing on populism capitalising on racist sentiment.
Whilst in Britain, huge progress has been made in reducing racism and far-right activity in football grounds, 50% of match-goers witnessed racism since 2010, down from 61% between 2000 and 2009, and 67% between 1990 and 1999. Football fans can face criminal sanction in the UK under several statutes: individual racist expressions can be charged under the Public Order Act 1986 for using “obscene or foul language at football grounds”. Repeated racist chanting, but only by grounds of supporters, became a criminal offence under section 3 of the Football (Offences) Act. It was only with the passage of the Football (Crime and Disorder) Act 1999 that individuals were caught under a specific offence, but only if they repeatedly chanted racist slurs. The changes in the criminal law, though not perfect, have led to a decline in overt racism in English football. Concurrently, efforts within football have made a clear difference. The Kick It Out campaign was born out of cooperation between groups including the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE), the Professional Footballers Association (PFA) and the Football Supporters Association (FSA). The Kick It Out initiative established a set of guidelines, including preventing the circulation of far- right materials in stadia. Whilst some far-right material has been distributed in the last 20 years, and racist chanting still happens, both are in a clear decline. All of these measures, however, require good-will from prosecutors, clubs and the majority of fans, to have serious impact. Increased fines for clubs, bans for players and supporters, and perhaps most potently, point deductions, can help create incentives to stamp out overt displays of racism. If, however, we are presented with the reality of extremists once again targeting football fans, bans of those who are known to be associated with far right groups outside of football may be prudent. The fact that 500 Lazio fans congregated outside the ground to perform Nazi salutes and chant Nazi slogans strongly suggests that these individuals had already previously been banned for their behaviour, but in order to ensure they are not able to poison the wider footballing environment, measures such as those often taken in the UK – such as banning them from being within a certain distance of a football ground within a certain time period of a match – would go a long way, as would seeking an understanding from bars popular with supporters that they will be refused entry, something currently achieved with police cooperation from bars in towns with trouble-prone nightlife.
Only time will tell whether there is any serious prospect of reducing the influence of the apparent deeply ingrained antisemitism from, at least, hundreds of Italian football fans. However, in the UK, where Tottenham supporters’ groups stubbornly refuse to recognise the antisemitism of their use of the word “yid”, and where there are frequent displays of virulent antisemitism from opposition fans, there are also lessons to be learned. Where one group of fans uses this slur “in appreciation”, shortly after, outright antisemitic abuse comes as a reaction. The actions of those who engage in outright antisemitic abuse at football matches is obviously totally unacceptable. However, the fact that football fans abuse their own clubs’ reputations by using these epithets as a badge of honour has to be recognised as something that is taking the high amounts of emotion that are present at sporting events, and allowing this to be dumped on Jews by opposing fans. The result is a culture that is still, despite all the progress in cleaning up European, and particularly British, football since the “bad old days”, still can be fundamentally unwelcoming to Jews, where sntisemitism goes largely unpunished.”