A rocket under English football

The ACPO's ban on flares at matches shows how killjoy the football police have become.

Duleep Allirajah

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It was fitting, in the same week that Britain traditionally goes firecracker crazy, that the football authorities should launch a campaign against pyrotechnics. It isn’t a crime for adults to possess fireworks – you can buy them in the corner shop or supermarket – but it is illegal to take any form of firework, smoke bomb or flare into a football stadium. Last week, the English Premier League launched a crackdown, warning fans they could be banned or imprisoned for possession of pyrotechnic devices at football matches. The recent adoption of European-style flares is an attempt by English fans to inject a bit of sparkle and colour into our increasingly anaesthetised football stadiums. But, unsurprisingly it looks like the firework fad could be snuffed out just as quickly as it fizzed into life.

Smoke bombs and flares are the latest must-have terrace accessory. So far this season there have been 131 pyrotechnic incidents at English league grounds, resulting in 44 arrests. According to the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), there was a 140 per cent increase in the use of pyrotechnic devices at football in the 2012-13 season. During a recent match between Spurs and Aston Villa, a linesman was hit by a smoke canister thrown from the crowd. The authorities, as you might expect, see flares and smoke bombs as a significant health-and-safety hazard. Home Office minister Damian Green says that pyrotechnic devices are ‘very dangerous’ and capable of ‘leaving someone with life-changing injuries’. The Premier League wants fans to understand the potential risks. ‘We want people to be aware of what the dangers are, both to themselves and the people around them’, said Cathy Long, the League’s head of supporter services.

So just how harmful are smoke bombs? Earlier this year, Bolivian football was rocked by the death of 14-year-old Kevin Beltrán Espada, who was hit in the face by a flare. But this was a rocket-propelled maritime distress flare, a much more dangerous device than most of the flares or smoke canisters we usually see on the terraces. Damian Green, however, insists that all pyrotechnic devices are hazardous. ‘It is very difficult to extinguish flares once lit because they often contain burning metals’, says Green. ‘Even after they stop burning, they will be too hot to handle for some time [and] could still set fire to flammable items like litter.’ Okay, okay, we get it. They’re hot and dangerous. But so too is tea or Bovril and these drinks aren’t banned at football. Statistics published by the Sports Grounds Safety Authority show that there were 92 cases of scalding – presumably caused by hot drinks – during the 2010/11 season; 118 fans were injured by footballs. But clearly you can’t ban these. How many spectators do you think were injured by flares or smoke bombs? Zero. That’s right, niente, nada, not a sausage.

What’s interesting about the vogue for smoke bombs is that it’s not a typically British tradition. Flares usually evoke memories of European awaydays, but their use in the UK is relatively novel. It’s not difficult to understand the allure of pyrotechnics. Love them or loathe them, smoke bombs and flares really enhance the atmosphere at football matches. Their adoption in this country shows that English fans, for so long terrace-culture trendsetters, are now following the example of European fans. It’s a measure of the extent of sanitisation in English football stadiums that our fans are now looking abroad for inspiration. Where once English football grounds were cauldrons of noise, now they are too often hushed and soulless. No standing, no smoking, no offensive chanting – it all adds up to no atmosphere. Little wonder that English fans cast an envious eye to the Dortmund’s Westfalenstadion or Marseille’s Stade Velodrome.

It’s not just the use of flares that we’ve copied. In recent years there has been a notable growth in this country of ‘ultra’ groups consciously modelled on hardcore European fan organisations. The atmosphere at Crystal Palace games, for example, has been transformed by the establishment of its own ultra group, the Holmesdale Fanatics. They make flags and banners, develop new songs, orchestrate the chanting and organise choreographed ‘tifo’ card displays. And yes, flares are set off too. Although the team isn’t exactly setting the Premier League alight this season, rival supporters and commentators often remark how vocal the Palace fans have been. Win, lose or draw – and it’s usually lose – the fans never stop singing.

The traditionalists, however, sneer at UK ultras such as the Holmesdale Fanatics. It’s not the British Way, you see. The fact that the Fanatics use a drum is derided as ‘manufactured’ atmosphere. But this isn’t noise manufactured by the club PA system. Nor is it an official ‘singing section’, such as the one recently created at Old Trafford. It is atmosphere generated by fans themselves. And so what if they bang a drum? If it helps to crank up the noise then I can’t see a problem. It might not be the traditional British way. But if we wanted to be faithful to tradition, we’d still be wearing cloth caps and clogs and twirling wooden rattles.

The adoption in England of ultra-style traditions, such as tifo displays and flares, is symptomatic of fans’ disaffection with the killjoy culture that is suffocating football. Fans in this country are fed up with being told to sit down and mind their language. They’re increasingly waking up to the fact that the atmosphere is better on the Continent and they want a piece of the ultra action. That’s why they’ve taken to setting off flares. Of course, there are risks to pyrotechnics, but the drive to make football stadiums risk-free is increasingly making them atmosphere-free, too.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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