Football has dominated the headlines this week with events at last Saturday’s Scottish Cup Final once again fuelling a degree of public debate on how the sport deals with the anti-social behaviour it can generate.
I say a degree because, as always seems the case in Scottish football, there is much more heat than light in the round of recriminations, finger pointing and playing of the blame game we have witnessed this past week. Indeed, if Scotland’s players passed the ball as well as its clubs, fans and officials passed the buck perhaps we’d be enjoying the European Championships from the stadiums of France rather than the comforts of our armchairs.
Now I should state at the outset I believe the majority of Scottish fans of all clubs are decent people. I’m not writing this because I hate the game, the fans or any club. I’m writing this because I want to see Scottish Football made accountable to these very people.
If the scenes witnessed on Saturday had taken place in a pub with staff being assaulted, bouts of sectarian chanting breaking out and violence taking place on the doorstep the licensee would be hauled before the licensing committee and face serious sanctions. Football has no such problem as it seems to be only accountable to itself despite the tens of millions of pounds of public money which have been pumped into it over recent years.
Part of the problem is the perception that the Scottish game doesn’t do enough to tackle its demons and this was reinforced back in June 2013 when Scottish clubs voted overwhelmingly against implementing UEFA’s ‘Strict Liability’ principles without any real public debate or, more importantly, any fan involvement in the decision making process.
‘Strict liability’ is UEFA’s standard for fan behaviour and can see sanctions imposed, such as fines, points deductions or closing sections of a ground where offensive behaviour or crowd disorder has taken place. It has been used to great effect in European matches and over the last decade this has included fines for Scottish teams in European competition. In possibly the most serious sanction imposed under the principles, CSKA Moscow, having seen fans charged with racist behavior on three separate occasions during 2014, were forced to play three Champions League games behind closed doors and were banned from selling tickets for away fixtures.
No one is advocating that, in Scotland, we should simply leap into a round of ground closures but Strict Liability provides a clear framework for reporting and dealing with instances of disorder and offensive fan behavior including sectarianism and racism. Something you’ll struggle to find in the nearly two-hundred-page SFA rulebook.
Over the last few years we have been campaigning for ‘Strict Liability’ to be introduced into the Scottish game. Sadly, clubs have been running in the other direction and offer up, un-costed and unworkable ideas such as ‘facial recognition’ rather than embrace UEFA’s standards.
Strict Liability would not replace the law of the land; those who carried out cowardly assaults on Saturday would face the full legal consequences. Nor will it be a ‘magic bullet’ to solve all the problems. What it will do is provide a positive direction of travel for the game in terms of tackling anti-social behaviour and a framework to support or punish clubs as required. By introducing it the game has the chance to stand up and be counted and give encouragement and a voice to the thousands of real fans who turn up to support their teams.
Nil by Mouth aren’t alone in calling for this change in thinking. Last year, the Scottish Government’s Advisory Group on Sectarianism published its report and made a number of recommendations for Scottish football to implement to create change in this area. These included implementing European-style sanctions. Over a year has passed and this report appears to be gathering dust on a Hampden shelf.
Given the millions of pounds of public money pumped into the game politicians should not be slow to make football honour its responsibilities in the debate which lies ahead on the future of the Offensive Behavior at Football Act. If Scottish football continues to forfeit on its moral obligations Holyrood should establish a panel, independent from the game and modelled on UEFA tribunals, to hear cases brought under strict liability with the power to force sanctions.
Indeed, we need only look over Hadrian’s Wall for encouragement: in 2014 the English FA successfully implemented Strict Liability after consultation with campaigners, clubs and fans. There is no reason the Scottish game cannot follow this example.
So if you are one of the vast majority of decent fans who are sick and tired of seeing your game being dragged through the mud drop your club secretary an e-mail asking them to ballot season ticket holders on whether or not they support ‘Strict Liability’. Or e-mail all eight of the MSPs who represent your constituency and region asking them if they will ensure that ‘Strict Liability’ is properly debated and considered during the debate on the OBFA.
Because no longer can we allow football to pick and choose the issues it wants to have a conscience on.