When Kosovo and Millwall are in the same sentence, it can only mean trouble. Lance Bellers explains how a non-existent racist incident ended up in the press

Last month, for the third year running, Millwall set aside one of their fixtures to act as a focus for the efforts the club makes to combat racism and to en­courage all sections of the south London community to come to the ground. This year, 1,500 local school kids were given free tickets to visit The New Den for the Blackpool game. The day was backed by Southwark and Lewisham councils and the Metropolitan Police.

It was the police, in fact, who had the imaginative idea of also inviting a coachload of Kosovan refugees, currently residing in a hostel at the Elephant and Castle. Inspector Steve Burgess of Southwark police said: “A lot of the young men at the hostel are obsessed with football. We have already organised a number of matches with police to give them something to do.” So, a good idea all round then, you’d think. Unfortunately, the good intentions of the gesture were wrecked by the irresponsible reporting of the local press.

Feelings have been run­ning fairly high about the supposed problems that ref­ugees bring with them, stoked by wild tales in the national media targeting their alleged high life funded by benefits and begging. Into this touchy area blundered what is usually Millwall’s strongest supporter in the media, the South London Press, which reported four days before the game that the Kos­ovans’ trip had been can­celled “because the move prompted a fierce backlash from racists who phoned the club”.

On the strength of that the Press Association put out a report claiming “the police had no choice but to cancel the visit after calls to the club making threats of what might happen to illegal immigrants”. This prompted an angry press release by Millwall, which stated categorically: “The decision to postpone the visit was not made as a result of telephone threats made to the club. No threats of any description have been received by the club.”

They also pointed out that the visit was initiated by Southwark police and not the club. The police, in fact, had simply decided that what seemed like a good idea at the time simply was not worth all the bother it was causing in the press.

Millwall’s chairman Theo Paphitis was seething about the whole matter. He has made huge efforts to improve Millwall’s poor image, not least through a policy of banning people guilty of racist and other anti-social behaviour at The New Den. When you see the figures at the end of each season for people arrested at each ground, don’t think Millwall have the worst problem just because the figures there are high. They are high because Paphitis actually does something about it.

So to have the annual match focusing on anti-racism initiatives hijacked by the Kosovan non-story must have been very frustrating indeed. Relations between Paphitis, certain staff at the South London Press and PA are not, it is safe to say, at an all-time high.

It didn’t end there. By the morning of the match, the Daily Telegraph ran their version of events under the heading Millwall Thugs Stamp On Hand Of Friendship. It stated: “A group of Albanians who fled war-torn Kosovo for the sanctuary of south London have been told they cannot go to a football match in­volving the local club, Millwall, be­cause it will be too dangerous.” On the front page, too.

In general, Millwall do get a reasonably fair crack of the whip in the media these days. However, on this occasion the combination of paranoia about refugees and the chance to reinforce stereotypes of Millwall supporters was clearly just too good to resist.

As a result there was no afternoon’s entertainment for our friends back in the hostel at The Elephant, although having been through the ex­perience of seeing their hom­e­land ripped apart, missing out on Millwall 1 Blackpool 1 just possibly might not have been the worst thing that has ever hap­pened to them. But let’s hope they can make it down at some point. We still need all the support we can get.

From WSC 159 May 2000. What was happening this month

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