Racism, fan unrest again haunt English soccer

December 10, 2012

Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand was dripping with blood Sunday, the latest incident that has English soccer authorities fearing a return to a less civil past.

FIFA President Sepp Blatter praised the country's fans last month as positive examples for the world. But unrest at globally televised Premier League matches is reviving memories of the hostilities in the 1970s and 80s.

''To see Rio Ferdinand with blood on his face is absolutely terrible,'' English Football Association chairman David Bernstein said Monday. ''I think it's disturbing that we're seeing a recurrence of these types of incidents.

''We've had racial abuse issues, the odd pitch incursion, things being thrown at players. It's very unacceptable and has to be dealt with severely.''


Prosecutors acted swiftly Monday to charge nine men in connection with disorder at the match that Manchester United won 3-2 at Manchester City.

They included the fan who ran onto the field to confront Ferdinand after the bloodied United defender had been struck by a coin during the celebration of Robin van Persie's winning goal in stoppage time. Officers say they heard another fan hurling racial insults at the Etihad Stadium, and that person will also go to court.

On Saturday, Norwich's 4-3 victory at Swansea was overshadowed by the arrest of a man for allegedly racially abusing Canaries defender Sebastien Bassong, one of four cases of apparent racism directed at the Cameroon center back in the past two weeks.

''It's very disappointing. So much of football is so good. Great things are happening in football as a whole, but these odd incidents get the headlines - and understandably because they are serious matters. They are unforgivable things,'' Bernstein said on Sky Sports television.

''When you think of the millions watching football every week, or involved in football, to see it hijacked by these incidents is awful, so we have to deal with it in the strongest way we can.''

During English soccer's darkest period in the 1980s, hooliganism led to clubs being banned from playing in European competitions for five years.

But since then English soccer has been credited with cleaning up its image. Reflecting last month on the blissful crowds at Olympic soccer matches in Britain in July and August, Blatter said he hoped the spirit ''would be transported ... all around the world, where in all football matches you can sit together and there are no clashes or disputes.''

Yet only days after he spoke, a match at Tottenham was marred by West Ham fans hurling anti-Semitic abuse and performing Nazi salutes.

Herman Ouseley, the head of English soccer's anti-racism body, fears there is a ''nastiness creeping back into society ... bigotry and hatred.''

''People take those characteristics into football to ease their frustrations,'' Ouseley said.

Bernstein also attributed the recent racism cases and crowd unrest to a ''difficult social problem.''

''I think there's a copycat thing,'' he said. ''Something happens and other people copy it, and this sort of thing can spiral.''

The past year has seen a spate of arrests for racism at Premier League matches, while Liverpool striker Luis Suarez and Chelsea captain John Terry have served bans for racially abusing opponents.

''It's important that matters are brought to a head and people understand that there is no room for this in football at all, and we'll do everything we can within the FA,'' Bernstein said. ''I know the rest of football feels the same - it's a blot on the game.''

As the FA investigates Sunday's incidents, it is encouraging clubs to impose lifetime bans on those found guilty of misconduct at matches.

The man who ran onto the field in Manchester on Sunday, who had to be restrained by City goalkeeper Joe Hart, has issued an apology and acknowledged the damage his unruly actions have caused English soccer.

''I am extremely ashamed of my actions. I have let myself down, my family down, my fellow fans down and Manchester City Football Club,'' 21-year-old Matthew Stott said in a statement released by his legal team. ''I intend to write personally to Mr. Ferdinand to express my extreme regret and apologize, and also apologies to Manchester United and their fans.''

Before Stott's court appearance, City has revoked the season ticket of the landscape gardener from Knutsford, south of Manchester, and he is now facing a lifetime ban from the club.

Lawyer Rebecca Caulfield insisted that Stott was not a ''stereotypical drunken football fan.''

''He is embarrassed and ashamed of his temporary moment of madness that has brought wider consequences on the club he supports and his fellow fans,'' Caulfield said.


Rob Harris can be reached at http://twitter.com/RobHarris