When It's Right to Punish Football Clubs for Their Fans' Behaviour

24/03/2012 16:23 GMT | Updated 24/05/2012 10:12 BST

On Friday, the Egyptian football team al-Masry were suspended from competition for two seasons. The ban was the national football authority's response to the explosive riots in which 74 people lost their lives following the side's February match against Cairo rivals al-Ahly. News of the ban was met with yet more violence; after the announcement, hundreds of fans battled with state security forces and in the melee a 13-year-old boy was shot dead.

News of these tragedies will arouse feelings of sadness in British readers and fans. These emotions will probably be coupled with a sense of bewilderment; the majority of football followers accept that old cliché that it's 'only a game', how could football result in such devastation?

Nearly all major European leagues have had experience with hooliganism; however far from the mass chaos that marred the games in the 80s, fan violence increasingly takes the form of clashes between 'ultras'. These groups are typically relatively well organised groups of die-hard fans who intentionally seek out battles against other clubs' ultras. These are not merely sadistic or hedonistic outbursts, but are viewed as ways of enhancing the glory of one's own club by creating the most feared fan-base. In Europe most of these bases are small enough to be contained; fans can be identified and blacklisted from attending games, whilst matches which produce the worst violence can be predicted and policed accordingly. In Egypt however, this 'ultra' culture had spilled over into the general support base; when this happens such defensive measures are inadequate, and punishment of the club becomes necessary.

Some might say that it is unfair to punish the team for the behaviour of fans. However, al-Masry had failed in even its most basic obligations to ensure the safety of its fans, allegedly allowing supporters to carry knives and other deadly weapons into the ground. Just as concert promoters who allow too many fans in to gigs and witness crushes as a result are stripped of their licenses, sports teams who flout their safety duties should be banned. But even when clubs do meet their security requirements, they should still shoulder some of the blame when their fans erupt into violence; the vitriolic statements of players and managers in the build up to games and the inflammatory literature and merchandise available in the vicinity of grounds all contribute to the bubbling cauldron of tension, liable to boil over at any moment.

However, even if one were to argue that collective punishment is unfair, the fact is that it very often works. Firstly, on a practical level, when violence is on such a large scale it is impossible to identify all of the individual culprits aside from their allegiance to the side in question. But, crucially, it speaks in a language that fans understand; when serious punishments are enforced, fans see that their actions aren't bringing glory to their team, but actively harming their progression. To be clear, this isn't an advocacy of the petty fines that the Spanish footballing authorities typically level at clubs when their fans scream horrific racism at black players (as Samuel Eto'o, for example, was regularly subjected to during his time at Barcelona), but points deductions, being forced to play matches behind closed doors, even expulsion from competitions. These punishments do work; for example in 2011, Rangers fans were banned from attending one of the club's European games after repeated sectarian chanting. Walter Smith, then the club's manager, pleaded with the fans to stop, for the club's sake; for the rest of the season, incidents were less prominent.

Obviously, the Egyptian violence was also, in part, a result of political tensions and inadequate policing. Furthermore, these measures alone are not enough. They have to be coupled with enhanced security regulations and dialogue with supporters; but what better incentive to give to clubs' organisational hierachies to enact these kinds of measures than showing that, if they don't, their club (and by extension their wallet) will suffer. Punishing sports teams for their fans' behaviour is a measure which should be used sparingly, and only then, needs to be coupled with the institutional and organisational improvements that make stadia safer places to be. However, often they are the only way of reaching extreme fans and self-interested club owners; hopefully, in the calm after last night's storms, al-Masry and the rest of Egyptian football will realise this.