This week Chelsea fans in London assaulted a black man on the Paris metro. It received international coverage and widespread condemnation. I was interested in what the French thought about this and how they covered it in the news.
Many French newspapers reminded us that football and hooliganism go a long way back, especially in the UK. Libération started by reminding its readers that not so long ago, to be a football supporter in the UK was often associated with some form of delinquency. They talked about the 1985 Liverpool Juventus match where 39 people died after Liverpool fans breached a thin division separating them from the Juventus fans. Even though English football has done a lot to combat fan violence, Chelsea still has the highest number of fans arrested for abusive or racist chants.
Le Figaro focused more on Chelsea’s history, saying it was just one more episode in Chelsea’s troubled history of racism. Chelsea was one of the last clubs to accept players of colour – Paul Canoville was the first in 1982. Le Figaro uses a quote from him where he describes overhearing several fans saying that his goals shouldn’t count because he was black to emphasise the fact that racism was endemic. Le Figaro also mentioned the John Terry affair, where Terry was found guilty of racially insulting Anton Ferdinand and was banned for four matched and fined heavily. It seemed to be saying that even though efforts had been made to stamp out racism, it still existed, at all levels, from fans to players. That being said, much was made of the universal and loud condemnation across the British press, specifically picking up on words used such as ‘shame’ ‘disgrace’ and ‘disgust’.
L’Express said that a 2011 survey had revealed Chelsea fans as the most racist in all of English football, saying that they were incapable of even respecting their own player. A fan was banned from the stadium in 2012 for racially insulting Didier Drogba. This, despite the fact that he helped Chelsea to the Champions League at the end of the season.
What was interesting about this was that the French newspapers did evoke the past history of racism in the UK, but focused mainly on the fact that Chelsea particularly had a tainted history and a still urgent problem of racism. In contrast, what the UK press seemed really worried about was that UK modern football might be being portrayed as universally racist – and this didn’t seem to be the case. There was more of a sort of unsurprised reaction that this should come from Chelsea.