Column: Can English soccer wipe out sick chants?

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FILE - This Saturday, April 11, 2009, file photo shows Blackburn Rovers' Stephen Warnock carrying flowers in memory of the 96 victims of the Hillsborough disaster before their English Premier League soccer match against Liverpool at Anfield Stadium, Liverpool, England. Ninety-six Liverpool supporters were crushed to death at Hillsborough Stadium at an FA Cup semifinal in 1989, a disaster that deeply scarred the city of Liverpool but which fans from rival teams have since twisted into chants too horrible to repeat.(AP Photo/Paul Thomas, File)
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One word for it is nauseating. Opposing fans from two famous English soccer clubs mocking and taunting each other about death and each other's suffering.

Sickening and hateful chants by fans aren't new in English soccer nor, unfortunately, are they going away. The pessimist would argue that not much can be done to stop them because in large crowds stoked on beer and often bitter rivalries, there'll always be a tiny-minded minority of loud mouths who will disgrace themselves.

And that, often, is true. It is also true that for many sports fans, especially those at soccer, part of the fun of attending games is being able to rile and poke fun in unison at opposition teams and their supporters. Only a killjoy would want to completely drown out the sound of a crowd in full voice or replace it, say, with the mindless drone of vuvuzelas, polite clapping or silence.

But a line must be drawn against chants that celebrate and mock death and suffering. Those that sing them are perhaps so moronic that they are beyond reasoning. But the optimist would say that such chants can be eradicated if the majority of fans who find them disgusting band together, just as they have done against overt displays of racism that have largely been kicked out of English stadiums.

Geoff Pearson, a law lecturer at the University of Liverpool's Management School, an author on soccer hooliganism and a Manchester United season-ticket holder, was at the recent League Cup game at Leeds that put such behavior back in the news.

Police say Leeds fans chanted about the 1958 Munich air crash that killed 23 people, eight of them Man United players. One of the worst such songs mentions victims lying on the runway, dying in the snow.

Equally despicably, police say some Man United fans unfurled a banner marked "Istanbul" — a deliberately provocative reference to the stabbings of two Leeds fans in that Turkish city in 2000. Newspapers reported that Man United fans sang about those deaths, too.

"It was loud from both sides," Pearson said in a phone interview. "It has always been the case in my time when United have gone to (Leeds' stadium) Elland Road that fans have chanted about Munich and that has always happened. The notable feature this time is that there were a lot more United fans chanting about Istanbul than there have been in the past."

The idiocy of fans mocking other clubs' disasters despite having endured tragedies of their own has been seen at Liverpool, too. Ninety-six Liverpool supporters were crushed to death at Hillsborough Stadium at an FA Cup semifinal match in 1989, a disaster that deeply scarred the city but which fans from rival teams have since twisted into chants too horrible to repeat.

As they sing, "what a lot of them do is they put their hands up against their face, which is basically saying they're squashed against the fence at Hillsborough. ... When you see it, it's disgusting," writer Nicky Allt said in a phone interview. His new play, "You'll Never Walk Alone — The Legend Of Liverpool FC," was opening this Friday in the city's Royal Court Theater.

Yet, Liverpool fans have mocked United's Munich fatalities, too. At a Liverpool supporters' union end-of-season party in 2009, people repeatedly yelled "Munich!" as a performer was singing. After video appeared on YouTube, the union issued a statement saying it condemns "chanting by any football fans from any club about death, football disasters or any suffering."

Allt partly blames younger fans drawn to soccer by the success of the Premier League and its biggest clubs but, he says, ignorant of the trauma that events like Munich and Hillsborough caused.

"They can come into the grounds totally unarmed with the history or any kind of education about the club and they can start spouting a load of crap and nonsense," he said.

"Those sort of chants are more prevalent now than they were 10 or 15 years ago," Pearson said. For younger fans, "it's an awful lot easier to just sing these chants and assume that they are ancient history and they are not actually affecting anybody in the stadium."

Police can arrest hateful chanters if they are deemed to be committing a public order offense. One of the 24 people arrested at the Leeds-Man United game on Sept. 20 was later charged for indecent or racist chanting.

Clubs can also throw offensive chanters out of stadiums or ban them from future games. But judging from how such displays continue, that doesn't seem to happen as often as it could.

Match "stewards and clubs sit back and allow this kind of chanting to take place," Pearson said.

Another option, as has happened in Belgium, would be for referees to interrupt matches when insulting chants start up in the crowd. But against, for instance, Man United, that could lead to rival fans deliberately shouting "Munich!" if their teams fell several goals behind, in hopes of getting the game called-off.

The best antidote to ignorance is education.

That can be through messages like those Man United has sent to fans asking them not to chant abuse at Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger.

It can be through gestures like Manchester City's this week. Executives and former players laid a wreath of purple and blue flowers at a memorial in Munich to those killed in 1958. That show of respect should shame the City fans who last season taunted United by chanting "Who put the ball in the Munichs' net?"

Or it can come from fans themselves. The aim should be to reach the point where supporters police themselves, feel that they can and must speak up and object when fans near them start obscene chants.

"It will be a long, drawn-out process," Pearson said. "If the clubs are keen to wipe it out and if the fan groups are keen to wipe it out, then you can wipe it out, certainly from inside the stadiums, because it happened with racist chanting."

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John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at twitter.com/johnleicester

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