Kick the police out of football
If we’re serious about forging civic responsibility, then let's allow football fans to steward their own games.
Now that the dust has settled, the riot wombles have swept the pavements and the shattered shop fronts have been boarded up, the nation can start to address the burning questions of the day. Questions like: ‘Who is going to win the Premiership?’ and ‘Can Arsenal ever replace Fabregas?’
For a brief few days, the crimes and misdemeanours of Ashley Cole, Sepp Blatter and Joey Barton were forgotten as the riots dominated the news agenda. However, as the impromptu football matches in no-man’s land during World War One showed, you can’t keep a good cultural obsession down. As Britain burned, football still managed to weave itself back into the Broken Britain narrative. We saw Premiership stars appealing for calm, matches in riot zones being postponed and white football fans taking to the streets to defend their communities – and even clashing with the police.
The riots of the 80s are a dim and distant memory for me. Back then Twitter wasn’t even a twinkle in some geek’s eye, so nobody knew – or cared – what footballers thought about inner city riots. The media sought out the opinions of politicians, community leaders, sociologists, criminologists and moral philosophers. But I can’t recall Glenn Hoddle or Kevin Keegan commenting on the riots. Things are very different today. Rio Ferdinand, for example, has 1.3million Twitter followers whereas Ed Miliband, the leader of the opposition, has a mere 88,000. As London shops were ransacked and torched, footballers were tweeting about the wave of lawlessness. ‘The scenes on Sky news right now are shocking… what is this all in aid of?? Innocent peoples [sic] homes + livelihoods have gone up in smoke-why?’ tweeted Ferdinand. ‘It seems these kids/people have no fear or respect for the police..maybe the army will get that respect??’
Wayne Rooney not only has new hair, he has a relatively new Twitter account. Nonetheless he has already amassed a staggering 1.2million followers. As the disorder spread, the England striker appealed for an end to the violence. ‘These riots are nuts why would people do this to there [sic] own country. Own city. This is embarrassing for our country. Stop please.’ The England squad also issued a plea for calm after their friendly against the Netherlands was postponed. In a prepared statement the England players said: ‘The whole squad would like to appeal for calm and an end to the disorder that has happened.’
We hear frequent demands that footballers should act as role models to young people. So, when England’s star players attempted to pacify the rioters, did anyone take any notice? Of course not. David James, for one, wasn’t surprised. In his Observer column, the former England goalkeeper wrote: ‘While it is true that most of us have had a council estate upbringing, most now live away from those communities, enjoying a lifestyle that is light years from the kids we are talking about… [W]e are different generations using a different language and a completely different way of communicating.’ However, even if footballers were ‘down with the kids’, their pleas would still have fallen on deaf ears. Why? Because, I’m afraid to say, our sons and our daughters are well and truly beyond everyone’s command: parents, teachers, policemen or footballers. This is why the FA’s Respect campaign is doomed to failure. The roots of the chronic erosion of adult authority lie much deeper.
As footballers tried – and failed – to restore calm, some citizens took matters into their own hands. Turks and Kurds in east London, Sikhs in West London and white football fans in Enfield and Eltham all took to the streets to defend their communities. The collective action of the Turks and Sikhs was generally well received by the liberal media. This was good vigilantism; David Cameron’s fabled Big Society in practice. The reaction to crowds of white working-class men chanting ‘Ingerland’ was more fearful. In Eltham, the middle-aged white men out on the streets were, according to reports, predominantly Millwall fans. The instinctive reaction among many media commentators and tweeters was that white vigilantes must be racist and infiltrated by the right-wing English Defence League. In other words, the wrong sort of Big Society. Ironically, the police who stood by impotently when confronted with looters and rioters, turned out in force to tackle a crowd of non-rioting white men. ‘What I don’t need is these so-called vigilantes, who appeared to have been drinking too much’, said Steve Kavanagh, deputy assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police.
The lingering fear of hooliganism has enabled the police to dictate the football fixture calendar. Matches and kick off times are often rescheduled on ‘police advice’. Last week, England’s friendly against the Netherlands and a number of Carling Cup games in riot-hit areas were postponed. There were even calls for the opening weekend of the Premier League season to be pushed back. A Guardian editorial, oozing with contempt for football fans, called for a postponement. ‘Large and excited pre- and post-match crowds, sometimes drink-fuelled, streaming through shopping streets in often rundown parts of Britain’s cities, some of which have already suffered serious riot damage in recent days, are a recipe for further danger and uncertainty, made more febrile by the current mood’, the paper warned.
Obviously police resources were severely stretched by the wave of looting and rioting. But does it follow that football matches should be postponed if there are no police? I don’t think so. One option which wasn’t considered was allowing football fans to police their own matches themselves. Why not? If citizens can defend their own communities, why can’t football supporters be entrusted to organise the stewarding of their own matches? Most fans aren’t interested in punch-ups with rival fans so it should, in theory, be possible for the sensible majority to control the small number of hotheads. The political elite, who fear and despise the white mob, would undoubtedly recoil at the idea. But, if we want to rebuild a sense of civic responsibility, self-policed football matches are as good a place to start as any.
Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.