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1 April 1998

Kicking the soul out of football

Duleep Allirajah, from the football supporters' network Libero! claims the latest measures to challenge racism in football grounds will ruin the sport

Imagine a country where spectators at sporting events are arrested for chanting unacceptable slogans; where players are expelled from the field and disciplined for using improper language; where sportsmen and coaching staff have gagging clauses in their contracts forbidding the expression of unsound opinions; and where amateur teams are banished from public parks for expressing forbidden words.

This is not a Third World dictatorship or a dystopian vision of a future society. This is Britain in 1998, and the sport in question is football. To be more precise, this is the way Britain is heading if New Labour's Government's Football Task Force has its way.

But how, you might ask, can such a censorious regime be justified in this day and age? Simple, present your disciplinary measures as anti-racist and nobody will object. In Britain today anti-racism is part of the new Blairite morality. When, the Football Task Force published its proposals for 'zero tolerance' of racism in football, nobody raised a murmur of protest.

Anti-racism has for some time been the routine justification for increasing the regulation of football fans' behaviour. It is already an offence under the 1991 Football Offences Act to chant racist slogans 'in concert' with two or more other people. Now the Task Force wants individual fans prosecuted for racist chanting. In fact the Task Force wants to extend anti-racist codes of conduct to players, managers, officials and even Sunday afternoon pub teams.

Given the scale of the proposed clampdown you would be forgiven for thinking that watching football match was like attending a Ku Klux Klan rally. In fact racist chanting, a common phenomenon in the 1970s and early '80s, is now extremely rare. However, its reduction has nothing to do with anti-racist rules and regulations, which were largely instituted after the problem had disappeared.

Racist chanting declined because some social divisions, of which racist abuse was but a symptom, have gradually been eroded. Football fans were never the cause of these divisions and therefore criminalising racist behaviour among them was never the answer. The solution to the problem of racism lies not in the sphere of personal behaviour, nor in any football stadium, but outside sport altogether in the make up of society. Unsurprisingly, changing society is outside the remit of New Labour's many task forces.

The Football Task Force wants more black people to attend football matches and more Asians to play in the teams. The Task Force's crude plans for cultural engineering will succeed, not in attracting black spectators, but in contributing to the demise of football's essential passion. The consequences of the draconian regulation of Britain's most popular pastime are already evident. Television money has boosted flagging attendances at matches yet the atmosphere in Premier League grounds is often strangely soulless. Rules designed to protect fans and players alike from abusive language are ruining football. What the Blairite football bureaucrats fail to understand is that football, like sex, is more exciting if it's unprotected.

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