Song sung blues

Anti-catholic chants from Rangers fans left UEFA unsure what to do, but their softly-softly approach could force real change in Scotland. Diane Millen reports

The endless, tawdry saga of sectarianism in Scottish football took an interesting twist earlier this month, with UEFA stepping in where the domestic authorities have declined to act and charging Rangers with “discriminatory chanting” following their fans’ behaviour in the Champions League tie against Villarreal. 

There was no case for the defence – the fans had demonstrably indulged in repeated renditions of the Govan favourite Billy Boys, notoriously replete with references to copious quantities of Catholic plasma. However, UEFA declined to punish the club, observing that the song had been tolerated for years “without either the Scottish football or governmental authorities being able to intervene” and concluding “in the social and historical context, we cannot demand an end to behaviour which has been tolerated for years”.

While at first glance this appears like a classic cop-out, and indeed was condemned by anti-sectarian group Nil by Mouth as “bizarre and outrageous”, UEFA’s position could ultimately have more impact than if they had handed out the threatened £25,000 fine. By making it clear that responsibility for this situation rests with the SFA, UEFA have put strong pressure on the domestic authorities to address the matter meaningfully, rather than issuing the usual condemnatory cliches.

In this, UEFA are backed by FIFA, who recently issued a directive requiring national federations to dock points from member clubs whose fans display bigotry or racism, with the threat of a two-year ban from international competition for non-compliance. Although this is not a threat that might unduly trouble most of Scotland’s clubs at the moment, the SFA made it clear that they will take the directive seriously and plan to amend their constitution in order to comply.

The SPL have reacted by asking their observers to start monitoring the incidence of sectarian singing – press reports suggested the SPL delegate at a recent game with Aberdeen had reported the Rangers fans for singing the same offending ditty (although it was also generally acknowledged that some self-restraint had been exercised, with only one instance of the song rather than the customary prolonged barrage). It is not clear, however, what the SPL will do with such reports. Other, wider measures are also being contemplated, with the SFA and the Scottish Executive jointly considering the use of banning orders to ensure that fans convicted of discriminatory singing are not allowed into grounds. While it may be that tackling individuals is the only way to achieve lasting change, the authorities must be certain that those singled out are genuinely guilty of an offence.

However, such a partnership between the football and political authorities shows that sectarianism is definitely now recognised as more than a football issue and demonstrates the desire of the Scottish political establishment to get rid of it, if for no other reason than the harm it may do to an aspirant nation’s international profile. Although UEFA does Scotland a disservice by implying that the entire nation tolerates religious prejudice, it is right to acknowledge that football and religion in parts of Scotland have a complex and mutually reinforcing relationship.

Religious prejudice has had a real impact on the lives of many Scots, restricting their employment, educational and social opportunities, and sometimes leading to outright violence. While football is far from the only arena where bigoted attitudes are expressed, by bringing people together in a social environment that implicitly condones such behaviour (despite the clubs’ explicit condemnation) it reinforces its acceptability in certain circles. Any serious attempt to root out sectarianism from society cannot avoid engaging with its role in sustaining and being sustained by football rivalries; nor can any drive to remove bigotry from football occur in isolation.

Further action from UEFA remains a possibility, as the inspector responsible for mounting the case against Rangers, Gerhard Kapl, has launched an internal appeal. But if the decision stands, has UEFA done the right thing? It is legitimate to recognise that sectarianism is a wider social issue – but so is racism and UEFA (rightly and successfully) supports broad-based anti-racism campaigns. The fact that an issue is rooted in the social conditions of a member country is surely not a good reason in itself for UEFA to disclaim responsibility for helping to tackle the problem. That said, the ultimate measure of UEFA’s approach must be the extent to which it promotes real change to a situation of which most Scots are now heartily sick. Docking points may be the only thing that will persuade the bigots, “90-minute” or other, to stop, regardless of whether they also accept that their attitudes are harming their team and their country. And UEFA’s decision will have been behind that move.

From WSC 232 June 2006. What was happening this month