Soccer fans shove black man on Paris Metro. Will their team be penalized?

The racist incident was condemned by witnesses and soccer organizations alike, including Chelsea F.C., whose fans were the perpetrators. Experts say that punishing the team directly can influence fan behavior, but only helps so much.

Paul Nolan/Guardian/YouTube
Chelsea fans push a black commuter off a Metro car in Paris on Tuesday, in this still from a video filmed by a bystander and first published by the Guardian. The fans later began to sing 'We're racist, and that's the way we like it.'

Amid the broad outrage over the racial abuse heaped on a black Parisian by fans of the Chelsea soccer club Tuesday night, there seems little doubt that someone will be punished over it.

French police have opened an investigation into the incident and are receiving help from London's Metropolitan police to find those responsible. Chelsea F.C. called the acts “abhorrent,” ones that had “no place in football or society,” and vowed to support any criminal action against the fans.  English football’s governing body, the Football Association, has said that it supports a ban on those involved.

But just who might be punished: the hooligans involved, or the Chelsea club itself? And if the latter, does that help in reducing such behavior by fans, over which the club has no direct control? Experts say it can, but that club responsibility for its fans only goes so far.

Images captured by the amateur video on Tuesday showed a black man being repeatedly shoved off a Paris metro, as Chelsea fans headed to a Champions League match against Paris Saint-Germain. Minutes later, the fans can be seen chanting, “we’re racist, we’re racist, and that’s the way we like it.”

British expatriate Paul Nolan, who filmed the scene on his cellphone, described it as “ugly” and “very aggressive.” The man who was shoved, identified only as Souleymane by French newspaper Le Parisien, said "These people, these English supporters ought to be found, punished, and ought to be locked up."

Such racism has been an unfortunate part of football for decades, says Bernadette Hetier, co-president of the Paris-based anti-racism organization MRAP. However, she says it is the clubs that need to set the tone on appropriate conduct.

“What we saw in Paris is abominable and shocking, but we’ve always seen this in sports,” says Ms. Hetier. “Part of the problem stems from when coaches take too many liberties in their rhetoric, making racist comments as if they have permission from society to do so.”

Indeed, just this week, former Italy manager Arrigo Sacchi told Gazzetta dello Sport that “there are too many black players” on the youth side and that “Italian football is now without dignity or pride because it has too many foreigners playing in the youth teams.”

Hammer the club?

In the past, UEFA – the Union of European Football Associations – has been quick to lay the blame for misbehaving fans on the team itself, both by banning ticket sales and slapping on fines.

In April 2013, Ukraine’s Dynamo club was found guilty of racist conduct by supporters during games against Paris Saint-Germain and Bordeaux, and was forced to play their next European game in an empty stadium. Spanish club Villarreal was fined 12,000 euros ($13,600) last May after a fan threw a banana at Barcelona player Dani Alves. And just last Monday, Italian club Lazio was handed a one-match spectator ban after supporters led racist chanting during a match against Genoa.

But while punishing racist comments or hooliganism by fans within a stadium is commonplace, the task becomes unclear when a football-related incident occurs outside the field of play.

“The club technically has no responsibility for its traveling fans when they’re not on playing grounds,” says Anthony King, a sociology professor who specializes in sports and football at the University of Exeter.

Maurice Roche, professor emeritus of sociology and sports at the University of Sheffield, tells the Monitor in an e-mail that "Given the stance the [Chelsea] club has taken" in loudly condemning the fans' behavior in Paris, " it's not clear what more they could be expected to do in this situation."

The limits of punishment

Still, Professor King notes, “the club does set an example, and the tone it takes does have an influence on some of its followers,” and punishing the club can help stamp out fans' bad behavior. The Heysel stadium riot in 1985 in Brussels, for example, involved fans of the English club Liverpool and led to 39 deaths. In response, the UEFA imposed a five-year ban on all English football clubs from European competition.

“That ban worked because there were simply no matches, so the fans who were responsible for the acts weren’t there anymore,” says King. “So they can definitely have an effect on those who are committed to hooliganism.”

In addition, he says that even when it comes to fans specifically looking to make trouble, sanctions can be effective, especially for a team such as Chelsea, which has a longstanding history of extreme behavior and racism.

Professor Roche notes that English football has come a long way in its fight against hooliganism and racism, and troublemakers represent only a small minority of fandom. The "vast majority of normal fans includes increasing numbers of women and ethnic minorities, and also children and families. Their presence, plus vigorous anti-racism campaigns, provides part of the reason why racist speech and behavior is a rarity inside football stadia in England these days."

Indeed, Roche adds, "It is very unlikely, in my view, that these fans would have engaged in racist chanting in their home stadium, because they know that this would be controlled and lead to sanctions against them by the club."

Ultimately, King says, the combination of both legal and sport-centric penalties helps keep hooligans in line. “When it comes down to it, they don’t want criminal records and they want to be able to go and see the football.”

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