Confronting the shadows in the beautiful game: Racism, violence and mob behavior
The recent fan violence between NorthEast United FC and East Bengal highlights a toxic trend in Indian football. While the clubs have responded, enduring societal biases persist.
Football, often celebrated as the beautiful game, has been marred by a troubling underbelly in recent times — the surge of racism, violence, and mob mentality among its passionate fanbase.
The recent incident during the Durand Cup semi-final, involving supporters of NorthEast United FC and East Bengal, stands as a stark reminder that such distressing occurrences are not isolated events but rather distressing trends that require immediate and concerted attention.
Both the clubs issued hurried statements a day after the incident, much like the incident last year when both Bengaluru FC and Kerala Blasters has issued a joint statement after unsavoury incidents during the ISL match at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium.
But can such statements truly suffice?
The statements released by NorthEast United FC and East Bengal, while necessary, cannot put an end to these atrocities. In an ideal world, fans might recognize the shame these incidents bring to humanity and their beloved clubs, prompting a collective stand against such behavior. However, the reality we inhabit is far from ideal.
This issue is not confined solely to football or sports. Our societal norms and upbringing play pivotal roles in shaping our attitudes, beliefs, and actions.
From an early age, individuals are indoctrinated into the societal norms and values that surround them. Families, schools, the media and the larger community all contribute to this ongoing process. If a society perpetuates stereotypes, biases, and discriminatory attitudes, children are liable to internalize and perpetuate these behaviors.
Human beings are inclined to feel a stronger kinship with those they identify as part of their "in-group," a designation often influenced by race, ethnicity, religion, or nationality. This can inadvertently foster an "us versus them" mentality, fueling animosity toward perceived outsiders.
The media exerts considerable influence on public perceptions. Biased portrayals of particular groups can reinforce stereotypes, while underrepresentation can marginalize certain communities. Like say, a Northeast United FC fan living in Kolkata who would have walked into the Yuba Bharati Krirangan on Tuesday hoping to see some entertaining football, only to have a brick thrown at.
In larger crowds, individuals often experience diminished personal accountability. This phenomenon, known as deindividuation, can lead people to engage in behaviors they wouldn't otherwise due to a sense of anonymity. Unfortunately, crowds at football stadiums often give individuals this sense of lack of accountability.
Normalization of discrimination
Furthermore, an unsettling aspect that needs urgent attention is the normalized discrimination prevalent in Indian football.
It's distressing to witness derogatory stereotypes being casually perpetuated, where individuals from Kerala are called extremists, northeastern individuals are called 'chinki' or 'momo' and Tamilians are called 'annachis'. The baffling use of terms such as 'tea seller' or 'cleaner' as terms for derision is equally disheartening.
This issue underscores a deeper concern – a deficiency in not just formal education, but a lack of fundamental human values. It is only through fostering empathy and understanding that we can begin to dismantle such destructive norms and strive for a more inclusive football community.
Undoubtedly, Kolkata stands as the torchbearer of Indian football, often referred to as the Mecca of Indian football. However, as a city that holds such a prominent status, it bears a responsibility to transmit positive examples to the broader football community.
The defence that certain behaviours are simply intrinsic to the 'maidan culture' and that outsiders should make peace with it is shocking.
A recent incident after a derby serves as a case in point, where a viral video showed some fans resorting to abusive language.
It's crucial to acknowledge that this problem isn't exclusive to East Bengal fans; they too are known as 'Bangladeshis' in this toxic space of fan culture.
It is true that football is an intoxicating sport that often makes us forget our own troubles, but that intoxication should not make us forget that we are, above all else, are Indians, and more fundamentally, we are all human beings deserving of respect.
Accountability is a responsibility few are eager to shoulder. In the context of football, individuals must be the starting point. If even one person attempts to diffuse a potential trigger during its inception, urging those on the brink of reacting to pause and consider the ramifications, it can spark transformative change.
Nevertheless, a substantial portion of accountability must rest with the officials. Take for instance the recent confusion surrounding the allotment of away stands at the Yuba Bharati Krirangan during the Durand Cup semifinal, where Northeast United FC fans and East Bengal fans were forced to exit the stadium via the same ramp.
Preemptive measures are preferable to post-incident regrets.
In cases where home fans acquire seats in away stands, the proactive step of denying them entry to the stadium is vital. This may not be a prevalent issue in all matches, but for high-attendance games, employing barriers to separate away stand from home fans, coupled with robust security, is essential. A mere two security guards cannot effectively manage a group of 20 or 50 fans.
But as long as authorities seem more focused on restricting fan items like drums and banners rather than intensifying measures for the safety of both home and away fans, such issues will remain in the ambit of theory and not practice.
While total prevention might be unattainable, swift and stringent action in response to an incident will send a message loud and clear.
Consider the Kanteerava incident, where video evidence clearly identified the instigators. Initiating an FIR against these individuals and imposing bans on stadium entry within India would have been crucial initial steps. AIFF and FSDL should also contemplate fines and enforce empty stands for home games as penalties.
Unquestionably, stringent actions will have a more profound impact on fans than the diplomatic PR statements clubs release to save face and sweep such incidents under the carpet.
Prominent fan clubs must initiate campaigns, both on social media and in other avenues, to combat racism, abuse (whether online or offline), and mob behavior. While discussions about racism in European football do hold merit, it's imperative that we also address the outliers within our own community.