Can I be prosecuted for chanting at football matches?

Football chanting

Chanting at football grounds has been recognised as part and parcel of the game for years and is something which is seen as ingrained in the culture of our nation’s favourite sport. Furthermore it is a practice which is encouraged by clubs in order to create an atmosphere at the ground in order for the fans to get behind their team.

The 12th man

So often when talking about football matches we here talk of the 12th man – i.e. that the fans get behind their team so much that it is like the team has an extra man on the pitch. This 12th man can be created by the fans cheering on their own players but also by creating an intimidating atmosphere for the opposition players.

Intimidating atmosphere for opposition players

There are certain grounds in the UK which opposition players are treated to such loud dissent that it becomes an increasingly intimidating place to visit – on many occasions this can really affect the performance of these players. Clearly this is something which will be encouraged by the club if it helps them win football matches. However, sometimes this can go too far and when it does the law can step in.

What does the law say?

The Football Offences Act 1991

Under the Football Offences Act 1991 there exists an offence of indecent or racialist chanting. For this offence to be proven the chanting has to have been either due to the race of one of the players or regarded as indecent.

Racial chanting

Racial chanting has been a problem which has existed within football for many years and is something that football clubs in England and the Football Association have tried to eradicate through the FA’s Kick Racism out of Football campaign.

For racist chanting to occur it will have to be proven that the chanting is in fact racist. This may be something which is sometimes difficult to establish. During a 2008 derby match from the North-east of England an Egyptian player on the away side was subjected to Islamaphobic taunting from a section of the home fans. In this case the accused fans claimed that they were simply referring to the Egyptian player’s likeness to the infamous shoe bomber Richard Reid. They claimed that the chant was therefore not racist and was in fact humorous. The court in this case disagreed with them and they were prosecuted under the Football Offences Act.

Chanting directed at players of their own team

The issue of racial chanting brings up the situation where one team may be making comments towards one of their own players which they may regard as humorous. For example one player in the Premier League who originates from Asia is sung about by his home fans in relation to the particular culinary persuasions of his people. Whether this would be regarded as racialist chanting under the act remains to be seen.

Indecent Chanting

Proving whether a chant is in fact indecent is a much more difficult task than proving that a chant is racist. This is due to their being little definition of what is meant by indecent by the Act. Cases will have to be assessed on an individual basis and will depend fully on the individual facts of each case.

When looking at a high profile case from 2009 the judge stated that the following things should be taken into account when deciding whether chanting was offensive:

  • Whether decent members of the public found this 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, this however, should not detract from the fact that individuals should be punished

What were the issues identified in the case?

In this case the chanting was directed at a former player of their club who had left to play for their arch rivals and who was now playing for another club. This case had hinged upon complaints made by certain supporters about the chanting enabling the police to run an investigation which resulted in the prosecution of four offenders.

The chanting may have been regarded as indecent by certain members of the support but this may not have been the case by other members of the support – 7 other defendants in this case (3 of them minors) pleaded not guilty to the offence showing that they believe their actions to be outside the remit of the act.

What is the likely punishment for an offence under the Football Offences Act?

It is unlikely that individuals will be punished with a prison sentence under the Football Offences Act with the more likely punishment being a civil penalty called a football banning order.

In the case involving the indecent chanting the four men found guilty received a football banning order which applied to all football grounds in the country.

Poor taste versus indecent

Many chants happening during football matches may often be in poor taste but that does not necessarily mean that they are indecent. For example many players with famous wives are subject to much abuse concerning their wives. Whether this would in fact be indecent is an issue which the courts would have to decide looking at each case on an individual basis.

However, it is likely that chanting in relation to the sexual orientation of a certain player or something along similar lines would be regarded as indecent.

Issues dealt with internally by clubs and football authorities

Due to the many issues associated with prosecution under the Football Offences Act the problem of chanting by fans is often a problem which is left to be dealt with by the individual clubs and the Football Association. As stated previously the FA runs campaigns involved with ridding the game of prejudices on the grounds of race but also in relation to homosexuality. Both the FA and the individual clubs have the power to eject people from stadiums and ban them from stadiums so it is often felt that football has the necessary means to deal with this internally.