When my young sons and I first became season ticket holders at Chelsea in the early 1990s our seats were in the friendly ‘family section.’ Imagine our shock when I spotted that the person sitting next to us, with his child dressed in a blue babygro on his knee, had a swastika tattooed on his arm. The fan swore like a trooper at opposing players (and our own) and seemed to reserve the epithet ‘donkey’ for black players..
This person plainly represented the worst of supporters but, over the years, I came to think widespread racism was a thing of the past. The visceral, tribal hatred of Tottenham I fondly imagined was down to the self-identification of the north London’s club as ‘Yids’ and bitter London rivalry. Clearly, one totally underestimated the fierce racism among sections of fans. This in spite of the fact that black and Asian supporters – who sit near us in the upper section of the East Stand – always are treated by those around them with respect and comradery.
Recent events have shaken confidence that the appalling behaviour and antisemitism that plagued football in the 1970s and 1980s had been eliminated. The myth is that it is now confined to continental clubs like Roma unused, as we are in Britain, to seeing so many black players.
How wrong you can be. In successive weeks we have seen the reputation of Chelsea Football Club eviscerated. An unexpected victory against Premier League champions Manchester City was overshadowed by the sight of four fans, hatred on their faces, allegedly hurling racist abuse at England star Raheem Sterling. The fans have been identified and suspended and the incident probed by CFC and the Metropolitan Police.
Worse followed. When Chelsea fans travelled to the Europa League tie against Vidi in Hungary last week they saw it as an opportunity to put their antisemitism on display. Under the leadership of hard man Viktor Orban, Hungary has shown flashes of its Second World War racism – turning fire, for instance, on Hungarian-Jewish billionaire George Soros over his funding of liberal political and educational causes. Social media showed Chelsea fans in Budapest carrying a Chelsea Headhunters flag (a notorious gang) featuring an SS death head insignia.
The paradox of this renewed outbreak of racism and antisemitism is that it comes at a time when Chelsea’s beleaguered owner. Russian-Jewish billionaire Roman Abramovich, has been running an all-out campaign to rid Chelsea of such tendencies.
Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis was recently a guest at the ground to endorse a reinvigorated campaign against antisemitism.
Indeed, the match programme for the Manchester City game, at which the Sterling incident occurred, includes the announcement that Chelsea has teamed up with Kick it Out to release ‘a uncompromising short film encouraging people to report abuse.’
Produced by writer Ivor Baddiel, a Chelsea fan, the film seeks to raise awareness of the consequences of antisemitic behaviour, its effect on Jewish fans and the wider community. The club’s chairman Bruce Buck was seen at a recent game in Brighton pleading for calm among away fans. Fans of Brighton, owned by local Jewish philanthropist Tony Bloom, taunted the Chelsea contingent with a chant of ‘Racists! Racists! Racists!’
Arguably the public debate on antiemitism has been given some legitimacy by the Labour Party’s tolerance of anti-Zionist abuse and the embrace of right-wing activist Tommy Robinson by an enfeebled UKIP.
But no one should doubt Abramovich’s personal commitment to the cause of defending Jews. After all, he recently has donated £30.5m to upgrading the Imperial War Museum’s Holocaust Galleries and is committed to using Stamford Bridge to raise further funds for the cause.
Unfortunately, some fans are still horribly off-message.
- Chelsea chairman: Abramovich ‘will not rest’ until racism eliminated from club
- Abramovich would feel ‘extreme hurt’ by antisemitic chants, says ex-director
- Chelsea owner funds new project to record testimonies of Lithuania’s Righteous
- Chelsea teams up with Jewish News for Holocaust education fundraiser