Chanting at football matches is part and parcel of the ‘great game’ and is ingrained in football culture both at home and abroad. In fact, the practice is encouraged by football clubs to enhance an atmosphere of support and excitement at matches, and getting fans behind their team.
The presence of fans and their chanting is such that the term ‘12th man’ is their nickname because they help the players by enthusiastically cheering on their team. However, they can also create an intimidating atmosphere for the opposition players. Racial chanting, for instance, has been a problem in football for many years, and football clubs in England and the Football Association works to eradicate it through the FA’s Kick Racism out of Football campaign.
Intimidation by football fans can adversely affect the performance of an opposition team. If fans go too far, for example, continuous and insulting chanting, the law can step in to regulate and punish the fans’ behaviour.
What does the law say?
The Football Offences Act 1991
Engaging or taking part in indecent or racialist chanting at a designated football match is a criminal offence under this Act. Chanting is defined as “the repeated uttering of any words or sounds whether alone or in concert with one or more others”. For this offence to be proved, the chanting must have been either due to the race of one of the players or regarded as indecent.
The Act states that the alleged ‘racialist’ chanting must have consisted of, or included “matter which is threatening, abusive or insulting to a person by reason of his colour, race, nationality (including citizenship) or ethnic or national origins”.
Indecent chanting is more difficult to prove, because the Act does not define what constitutes ‘indecent’ for these purposes. This means cases will be considered on an individual basis and will depend on the facts of each case.
In 2009, a high-profile case where two fans were the first football fans to be convicted of indecent chanting offences (the chanting was aimed at Pompey defender Sol Campbell), the judge said certain factors should be taken into account when deciding whether chanting was offensive:
- Whether decent members of the public found it offensive (this can be established from the reactions of the fans in the surrounding seats)
- Whether or not the coaching staff found this offensive (this can often be established if a club has made a formal complaint about the abuse suffered)
- It is immaterial whether the player in fact found the chanting offensive – footballers may regard being abused as part and parcel of the game, but this should not detract from the fact that individuals should be punished
Chants which are in poor taste may not be indecent, but chants relating to sexual orientation can be. Homophobic abuse can constitute indecent chanting: a football fan was recently fined for chanting ‘queer’ three times at rival supporters during a football match in Brighton.
What are the sanctions on conviction of an offence under the Football Offences Act?
If an individual is convicted of racialist or indecent chanting at a football match, a prison sentence is unlikely. Instead, offenders are usually dealt with by way of a fine of up to £1,000 (and probably a victim surcharge).
A football banning order may also be imposed. On conviction of an offence of racialist or indecent chanting under the Act, the court must make a football banning order if is satisfied that there are reasonable grounds to believe it would help to prevent violence or disorder at football matches.
Can this issue be dealt with internally by football clubs and football authorities?
Individual clubs and the FA play an important part in dealing with unacceptable conduct at football matches including racial or indecent chanting. Both the FA and individual clubs have the power to eject people from stadiums and to ban them from matches under regulations introduced to deal with the problem.
For example, the FA’s Ground Regulations set out the behaviour which is unacceptable in football stadia and the consequences of discriminatory behaviour, including by ejection from the ground. Furthermore, the Football League’s Ground Regulations state that “abuse of a racist, homophobic or discriminatory nature will result in arrest and/or ejection from the ground”.
It’s clear that the police, football clubs and the FA itself each play a vital role in dealing with this problem – but it’s the fans themselves who need to understand the limits of what is acceptable at matches, or face the consequences.