Offside

'The free "ethnic minority" seats were allocated - ghetto-fashion - in one block. The atmosphere in our section was eerily quiet.'

Duleep Allirajah

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According to Home Office minister Lord Bassam, football clubs should reserve a quota of tickets for sale to ethnic minority fans. Apparently quotas will help to widen the game’s appeal (1).

It is a bit unclear how these ethnic ticket quotas would work. Would black fans have to sit in special enclosures like those reserved for disabled supporters and their families? Would white fans, desperate for tickets, resort to blacking up and talking in Ali G-style patois? Perhaps box office staff could vet telephone callers, weeding out bogus blacks by asking them tricky questions about Malcolm X or Bollywood film stars.

Alternatively, if reserved sections for black fans are unworkable, should we copy the government’s treatment of asylum seekers and disperse black people around the stadium? (Better still, why not actually re-house asylum seekers in the empty seats?)

Special ticketing schemes for ethnic minorities, comical as they may sound, are not a new idea. The government’s Football Taskforce recommended this policy in March 1998. Some clubs have already introduced concessions for black and Asian supporters. Now Lord Bassam’s Working Group on Football Disorder wants clubs to go further to attract more ethnic minorities, and ‘explore every avenue to broaden their core support’ (2).

A few years ago I experienced this kind of cultural engineering firsthand. When the local ‘Kick racism out of football’ campaign was launched at Crystal Palace, free tickets were distributed to local black community groups. I was offered a couple of tickets to a match against Coventry City and, despite my instinctive hatred of such tokenism, I felt it was impolite to refuse.

At the match we found that all the seats were allocated – ghetto-fashion – in one block. The atmosphere in our section was eerily quiet. In the row behind me a disorientated Rasta was trying to get his restless children to stay in their seats and watch the match. Would these children experience an epiphany a la Nick Hornby at their first game which would inspire a lifetime’s dedication to Palace?

An epiphany at Selhurst Park? You’re having a laugh, aren’t you? The football was turgid, the crowd was hushed, and Palace surrendered abjectly. I wouldn’t be surprised if most of the token blacks never set foot in Selhurst Park again.

You wonder where the drive to recruit black fans will lead. If blacks and Asians persistently refuse to watch their local team, will the Home Office get tough with persistent non-attenders? We already have domestic banning orders to exclude hooligans and racists from football grounds. Perhaps the government should introduce sanctions for recalcitrant blacks. Ethnic minority fans who fail to attend a minimum quota of local matches could be served with compulsory attendance orders.

I jest of course, but there is a serious point. Most kids in south London – black and white – appear to support Arsenal or Manchester United. What is the point in dragooning them into watching a struggling First Division team in the name of social inclusion? If Palace was in the ascendant maybe things would be different. Concessionary tickets, however, will never foster allegiance to a poor football team.

(1) Soccer clubs told to sell ‘ethnic’ tickets, James Clark, Sunday Times, 8 April

(2) Working Group on Football Disorder, Report and Recommendations, March 2001

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