The spectre of racism continues to haunt football stadium stands in London and across the country, yet the extent to which it goes unreported is extremely concerning. Sadly, footage that has recently been circulating in the news and on social media of players receiving abhorrent abuse from fans is just the tip of the iceberg. This is a burning issue that we can longer ignore and one that is turning the beautiful game ugly.
At the start of the month, during West Ham’s home game against Liverpool, we saw shocking Islamophobic abuse hurled at Mo Salah. Following this, I wrote to West Ham’s Chief Executive, Baroness Karren Brady, to commend the club’s instant condemnation of the incident alongside their close work with the police to bring those responsible to justice. I have also asked West Ham to go a step further and issue a statement denouncing the far-right organisation, the Democratic Football Lads Association (DFLA), which is purportedly linked to individuals involved in the club.
West Ham has one of the most dedicated fan communities in the country and carries out a huge amount of vital outreach work across my constituency in East London. As a life-long anti-racism campaigner, it is incredibly disappointing to me that a small group of fans is tarnishing the otherwise positive image of the club.
However, it needs to be reiterated that many other clubs in the capital are grappling with similar issues. In December, on a visit to Stamford Bridge, Manchester City midfielder Raheem Sterling was subject to alleged racial abuse from a small group of Chelsea fans. In North London, Arsenal continues to be shamed by incidents of anti-Semitic chanting from among their supporters, and the list goes on.
If robust action isn’t taken against perpetrators, they are likely to go on spreading hate much further beyond the grounds of their football club with a sense of invulnerability. Whilst most Premier League teams will impose lifetime bans upon those caught spreading hate, we clearly aren’t seeing enough of them being brought to book.
From Clapton CFC to Leyton Orient, London teams at all levels are putting in the work to enact cultural change around this. To give credit where it is due, top flight teams are also leading by example and co-operating with organisations such as Kick It Out and Show Racism the Red Card, and setting up educational initiatives to ensure the next generation of fans grow up aware of the dire consequences of hate crime.
All of these are important longer-term solutions. In the shorter term, the issue of under-reporting continues to hamper the efforts of police and communities to tackle all of the other forms of hate crime.
There are obvious practical problems involved in notifying the police about such incidents in the middle of a football match in a crowded stadium and it is extreme difficult for them and for clubs to respond to allegations made in “real time”. This means that both the reporting and the investigation of incidents are likely to occur long after the final whistle. And that is why having the sufficient evidence and available witnesses to back up allegations is absolutely integral.
It is vital that Premier League teams lead from the front on this and work closely with the police to ensure supporters can come forward with information with complete confidence and through the most straightforward route possible.
In addition, the more profitable clubs in London could certainly do more to financially support match day policing at their grounds. Last season, taxpayers had to hand over £5 million to meet the costs involved in keeping fans safe, exposing a large deficit in the contributions of teams such as Tottenham, Arsenal and Chelsea.
At City Hall, I have asked the Mayor for the most up-to-date figures on reports of match day hate crime made to the Metropolitan Police. Once it is possible to assess and confront the scale of under-reporting, I will be working closely alongside the Mayor, who has made tackling hate crime a priority, to turn the tide on abuse at football grounds.
Unmesh Desai is London Assembly Member for Barking & Dagenham, City of London, Newham and Tower Hamlets and a member of the Assembly’s police and crime committee.