Øne of the many sad things about what unfolded during England’s game in Hungary on Thursday is that it was completely preventable. We knew at Kick It Out there was a high risk of racism and disorder, so Fifa must have known too, but nothing was done to prevent it.
So we find ourselves with victims, when there didn’t need to be victims, and we are talking about sanctions when the solution was to put adequate prevention in place. It’s laughable that the stadium ban imposed by Uefa for the discriminatory behaviour of 匈牙利 fans at Euro 2020 did not automatically apply because this was a Fifa tournament. But even setting that aside, I’d love to know what risk assessment work Fifa did around this match.
If the primary objective is protecting player welfare, I can’t understand how the game went ahead in the circumstances it did. If countries such as Hungary cannot guarantee the safety of players – whether that’s around verbal abuse in significant numbers or the throwing of objects – either the match should be played behind closed doors or a ruling should be made that you are not fit to enter a tournament.
In any normal workplace, if an employer thinks someone is going to be abused as they go about their job, something would be done to ensure it couldn’t happen. For some reason football almost self-deselects from the standards of behaviour we expect in other employment scenarios – and that’s got to stop. If my son or daughter was playing for 英国 in Budapest, I would expect the football authorities to have a duty of care to protect them.
Prevention has to come first. And if that means countries that can’t guarantee player safety are not allowed to participate in tournaments, then we have to go that far. You can’t ban countries in perpetuity but a decision has then to be taken as to when it is appropriate to let them back in, just as there was after fan violence led to European bans for English clubs in the 1980s.
Part of this is about a robust risk-assessment process, and that includes taking into account sentiments in communities and football circles. There is far more data available to authorities than ever before, including through social media and the prevalence of extremist behaviours around a country.
My worry is a player is going to get seriously injured. I know some people found it amusing that Declan Rice picked up a plastic cup that had been thrown on and pretended to drink but a flare got on the pitch, 也. You can smuggle in stuff that can hurt people.
Hungary’s FA has promised two-year bans for fans guilty of “disruptive” behaviour but that is inadequate. The fact its statement did not mention race as a cause for some of the issues is a good indicator for me that you cannot guarantee safety there. If you cannot acknowledge that, how are you going to create a safe environment for players?
Of course we must recognise too that we have never got to the bottom of the problems we are facing in the UK. It’s become more toxic over recent years here, driven by the Brexit discussion and the way politics has moved.
There is an important discussion to be had. This isn’t a question of white people being racist and black people being victims. I’d love us to have national conversation about what race is, where it came from, how we got here and how it affects our views of one another. That is ultimately what underpins this whole conversation.