Chelsea’s fundamental problem with racism and xenophobia

It was 1 September, 1997 – the early days of multi-channel television and the (dial-up) Internet. I was sorry to hear Lady Diana had died during the wee hours, but never one for celebrity it was not something I dwelled on. I switched to German satellite TV, only to find that it too had handed over all its channels to coverage of the incident.

So I went to the Arsenal FC web site “chat room” to talk about something else, but in vain – I was by a stream of highly sympathetic messages about what had occurred. People from Beijing, Dubai, Kuala Lumpur, Copenhagen and elsewhere were queuing to pay their respects. Many paid specific respects to England/UK given that she was from the same country as Arsenal, but generally it was accepted that the world had lost someone special. It was all done in a spirit of generosity, and was in its way quite touching.

The only other club which had anything similar in those early days was Chelsea FC, so I headed over there really out of interest to see if something similar had occurred. Oh dear.

A Swedish supporter paying respects was told in response: “Get lost, she was British. Ours. Nothing to do with you”.

One message from Waterford was met with the retort: “Get lost. Your lot killed Mountbatten”.

Except, er, they didn’t write “Get lost”.

This was but one example of many – from a Tottenham Hotspur supporter’s letter this week to a FourFourTwo article a decade ago – which indicated there is something different about a very significant number of Chelsea FC supporters. This does not apply to all of them, of course; but the level of xenophobia, racism and anti-Semiticism – or general “fear of other” – experienced when coming into contact with Chelsea supporters is vastly disproportionate.

We know this in Northern Ireland, with our own battles trying to overcome the innate “fear of other”. Indeed, it was sadly predictable that one of the three supporters identified in connection with last week’s incident was from Northern Ireland. What we know beyond all dispute is it is not good enough to think you can overcome it by applying a penalty to a few who happen to get caught or happen to display this fear at a particular extreme; nor is it remotely reasonable to dismiss it as a “few bad eggs”.

No one doubts the sincerity with which its manager and lead executives have approached last week’s incident, but the truth is Chelsea FC has a particular problem. It needs to start by admitting it.

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