Football thugs, vaccines and 2022

IT has been a dire couple of years for the world and a challenging period for football at all levels. And it seems to be getting worse for the beautiful game – violence off the pitch, financial chaos at many clubs, a lack of cooperation around covid vaccination and to cap it all, Qatar 2022 is drawing closer.

The return of thuggery

We shouldn’t be too surprised about the behaviour of Hungary’s fans at Wembley, but given they fought with police, how come only one arrest was made? The country has a leader, Victor Orban, who has been eroding Hungary’s democratic system by implementing an authoritarian regime that some critics call “soft facism”. At the same time, he has encouraged the construction of new football grounds and around 10 of Hungary’s top clubs are owned or run by his acolytes. The behaviour of the Hungarian fans was appalling, but we should not kid ourselves that they are the only bad news in the modern game – on the same night, Albanian fans threw bottles at Poland’s players and forced a 20 minute delay. We’ve also seen issues with Czech fans in their games with Rangers this season. But let’s not forget the events at Wembley during Euro 2020. 

Something has changed and it may be part of the economic cycle that became in 2008. There’s been an upturn in right wing sentiment and xenophobia, partly driven by macroeconomic conditions, protectionism, the global migrant crisis and political instability. Although in terms of the numbers involved (with the exception of the Euro final) we have not returned to the late 1970s and 1980s, there is something very sinister about it all. The penalties have to be harsher and proper searches have to take place outside stadiums. The last thing we need as the game opens up once more is the worst elements of the football experience coming to the fore. UEFA, Orban, FIFA, sort it out, please.

The selfishness of the myopic player

Apparently, two-thirds of all Premier League footballers have not had the covid-19 vaccine. A mix of complacency, misguided indestructibility and misinformation have hindered the vaccination process, even though some prominent players from the past have died from covid-related illness. Some players have been spouting anti-vaxx conspiracy theories, much to the disgust of their clubs. Have they forgotten that football has been played in empty stadiums and fans have been unable to attend until the vaccine was rolled out and adopted? The problem is, a lot of players are social media addicts and there is a her mentality among dressing rooms. Pat Nevin, a former player with a social conscience, is not impressed: “Football players have had so many benefits over this period of time. Everyone has bent over backwards to get football back on. To not then be vaccinated and help secure other people’s safety as well as their own, I’m gobsmacked, I’m really upset about it.” Perhaps it is time for fans to show their feelings about players who have refused to be vaccinated?

The hypocrisy of Qatar 2022

Denmark and Germany booked their place for the 2022 World Cup but their players are far from comfortable about the competition being held in Qatar. Denmark captain Simon Kjaer has publicly stated that the Danish squad are emphatically against the World Cup being hosted there but will leave the politics to the DBU (Danish FA) to deal with. In theory, England’s players should boycott the competition given they have gone to great lengths to demonstrate their zero tolerance approach to racism by taking the knee. Yet if they felt that strongly, surely they should refuse to play in a nation that has a poor human rights record? Hypocrisy, of course, is no stranger to football, as we saw this past week in Newcastle. Being owned by a state that executed almost 200 people in 2019 is one thing, but celebrating it takes the discomfort to a new level. Time and time again, football lets itself down.

Hungarian football needs to learn from history

NOBODY SHOULD be too surprised by the behaviour of some Hungary fans in Budapest, it has been experienced before and the country has a right-wing, very nationalist government that has been in office for 11 years. The ingredients are there for problems.

It is incredible that, in the 21st century, people are defending the actions of some supporters, claiming England are merely making political propaganda out of a sports event. If the Hungarians are happy to see their country portrayed as being totally out of step with modern thinking, then so be it, but their international image will continue to be tarnished while they tolerate racism and bigotry.

England were jeered for taking the knee, a gesture that may have run its course in some respects, but it would be more appropriate to have stopped the game and taken the knee, or even demonstrated after the game to show the Hungarian fans that England had not been phased by the torrent of abuse and debris thrown their way.

It’s a great shame that in a stadium that bears the name of one of the most loved players in world football, Ferenc Puskas, should play host to such unacceptable behaviour. Budapest is a great city and Hungary has a rich footballing heritage, but somehow, the problems that once existed throughout Europe manage to linger on. That’s not to say England, for example, do not have similar problems, because we all know that racism remains in the game – hence the gesture being made by players over the past year or so.

When the pandemic prevented fans from attending games, the belief that football without the fans is a much diluted product seemed a very true assessment of the situation. But in truth, where you have large crowds, you have a diverse range of emotions and beliefs. For every good aspect of spectator sport, there are unpleasant and anti-social elements. In other words, nobody should be fooled into thinking that football crowds are sedate, all-loving vast bodies of people because they are not. The bigger the crowd, the more likely you will hear things you don’t particularly want to hear.

FIFA should punish Hungary for the behaviour of their fans, but this will not make the problem go away. You have to ask yourself why do they do this, why do they jeer black footballers? Hungary itself has suffered from bigotry, racism and anti-semitism in the past – some 500,000 Hungarian Jews died during the second world war. The Hungarian government should do something, but given their political philosophy, is that going to happen?

During Euro 2020, Hungarian fans wore black shirts as they protested about players taking the knee and there were also homophobic banners in the Puskas Arena. Hungary were ordered to play two games behind closed doors as a punishment. Hungary’s foreign minister called UEFA’s decision “pitiful and cowardly”.

While punishments from UEFA and FIFA seem to be quite toothless, perhaps it is time for countries to boycott or introduce sanctions against countries that are unwelcoming to their teams and fans. Banning countries from the World Cup and European Championship, as well as club competitions, would be far more effective. It is 2021, after all. History should have taught us something.