Silhouette of Angry Football Fans

Why Do Football Teams Get Penalised For Their Fans’ Behaviour?

Football teams being on the receiving end of punishments due to the behaviour of their own fans is quite a common occurrence these days. It is so engrained into footballing life now that we rarely even question it, even though it is not consistent with a standard legal approach. If you were to end up assaulted by a gang in the middle of a shopping centre, it is not the shopping centre that would end up in hot water, just the gang. Similarly, Novak Djokovic would face no repercussions if a group of die-hard fans wearing all his merchandise, decided to trash the arena he was playing in.

The reason football teams are liable when things turn sour is that national and international bodies have decided to hold them responsible in such cases. It is these bodies that are the driving force behind placing a huge degree of responsibility onto clubs and ultimately the buck now stops with them. The reasoning is that clubs will do everything in their power to ensure fans behave appropriately, should they be the ones punished for any transgression. Whether this is a fair system, however, remains firmly up for debate.

In this article, we’ll explore when clubs or national teams are liable for the actions of their fans, the punishments they could face and what they can feasibly do to stop bad behaviour in the terraces. Note that either clubs or national sides from around the world could be punished in various scenarios, but we’ll refer to clubs or national sides in this article that fall within UEFA’s remit, to keep things simple.

When are clubs liable?

Broken Stadium Seats on Football Pitch

Strict liability usually applies when it comes to football clubs. In tort (civil) law, strict liability means that a certain party can be punished even if there is no negligence or tortious intent on their part. So even if clubs have taken all reasonable measures to prevent an offence from occurring, this in itself is not a (full) defence, although it could mitigate the punishment.

In terms of what offences could find a club in hot water, UEFA will consider disciplinary measures should any of the following occur:

  • The invasion or attempted invasion of the field of play
  • The throwing of objects
  • The lighting of fireworks or any other objects
  • The use of laser pointers or similar electronic devices
  • The use of gestures, words, objects or any other means to transmit a provocative message that is not fit for a sports event, particularly provocative messages that are of a political, ideological, religious or offensive nature
  • Acts of damage
  • Causing a disturbance during national anthems
  • Any other lack of order or discipline observed inside or around the stadium

Given the very broad nature of some of these, clubs can very easily find themselves in trouble and we see offences occur every single year in UEFA competitions.

Although strict liability is commonly enforced, the Scottish FA are yet to bring in such a rule. It was something the English FA introduced in 2014 but their northern neighbours refused to follow suit. Although the debate quietly rumbled on for some time afterwards, the issue made the headlines in 2021 following some awful violence between Rangers and Celtic fans. The scenes were so bad it was branded the worst Old Firm clash in 15 or 20 years by the vice-Chairman of the Scottish Police Federation. In response, Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf announced strict liability could be enforced if clubs were unwilling the tackle the problems themselves.

What punishment do clubs face?

Like with any other crime, the harshness of the punishment correlates with the severity of the offence. There are of course cases in which governing bodies are viewed to have acted too leniently or too severely but the general premise remains true.

Minor Offences

Toilet Paper Roll on GrassGenerally, the lightest form of punishment a team can escape with is a small fine. UEFA forced Hibernian to pay €8,000 when some of their fans set off fireworks and threw an assortment of other objects during an away trip to Asteras Tripolis. Similarly, Celtic ended up with a €7,000 fine due to a combination of fireworks and a small fan pitch invasion. PSG supporters that ended up breaking a selection of seats at Celtic Park caused their club to cough up €5,000, to give you a few examples.

As you can see, fairly minor crowd disruption or something that causes a brief stoppage in play will attract the softest punishments. Speaking of “soft” punishments, Bayern Munich ended up receiving a €3,000 fine after their fans hurled toilet paper onto the pitch when protesting high ticket prices.

A consistent approach

Euros and CalculatorOne thing to note is that, especially for these small offences, clubs are usually charged a fixed rate for the sake of consistency. This means the size and stature of the club (or footballing organisation) is not really a consideration. This is why English footballing giants Arsenal were fine €5,000 for a pitch invader against Bayern in 2017, the same price Hearts faced for the same offence in 2012 at Anfield.

While consistent, this more “one size fits all” approach does see some clubs punished a disproportionate amount at times. Irish outfit Dundalk FC, for instance, were hit with an €18,000 fine because their fans flew a Palestinian flag during a clash with Croatian side Hajduk Split. Given that at the time Irish clubs received €100,000 for winning the league, this was a hefty fine for Dundalk.

More serious offences

With more serious offences, UEFA often sticks with a fine but increases the amount to five or potentially six figures. The English FA ended up paying €30,000 after one fan shone a laser pen into the eye of Kasper Schmeichel. The same bill went the way of Zenit St Petersburg after their unruly fans caused damage to Real Sociedad’s stadium in 2018. Celtic got away with a smaller punishment of €23,000 after their fans held up a paramilitary banner during a tie with northern Irish club Linfield.

Although fines are more substantial in these instances, most are still barely a drop in the water to the clubs/organisations involved.

Toughest sanctions

Empty White Stadium Seats

In the most serious of cases, governing bodies have been known to issue more than just a fine. There have been numerous cases of clubs facing partial or complete stadium bans as a result of their fans’ behaviour, usually in addition to a hefty fine. In 2005, Inter Milan faced a four-match stadium ban and a €195,000 fine after their fans became so violent the referee was forced to abandon their Champions League quarter-final with bitter rivals AC Milan.

Often it is racism that attracts these more serious punishments though. Hungary, for example, were fined €185,000 and hit with a two-game stadium ban (second game suspended) after their fans aimed racist chants at some England players during a World Cup qualifier in September 2021. Dynamo Kiev were also forced to play one European game behind closed doors after their fans were found guilty of a racially motivated attack on four black Chelsea fans. The ban was initially longer but reduced after the Ukrainian club showed a genuine commitment to avoiding a similar situation happening again.

Stadium bans have ended up being a common form of punishment with the likes of Lyon, Red Star Belgrade (2018), Partisan Belgrade (2019), Romania (2015) and Montenegro (2019) all facing either one or two games behind closed doors. All of these cases involved racist behaviour and in Lyon’s case there were several other offences at play including mob violence.

A full stadium ban, forcing a club to play behind closed doors, is usually seen as the harshest punishment a club can receive due to the action of their fans. UEFA did, however, take more extreme action in 2015 against Croatia, after an unknown fan marked a swastika into the middle of the pitch. This chemically imprinted swastika was visible on TV cameras when Croatia took on Italy during a Euros qualifier. In response, Croatia ended up with a €100,000 fine, a two-game stadium ban and a one-point deduction.

Although the reduction of one point ultimately made no difference, with Croatia qualifying for the tournament finals, it does show the power that UEFA wields. This case is particularly interesting too because the act was committed by an unknown perpetrator, rather than by a ticket-paying fan. The Guardian theorised it was most likely a protest against the Croatian Football Federation but there is a possibility it could simply have been some fascist, with little footballing interest, looking to create a scene.

Why are teams punished, not individuals?

Gavel Against Dark Blue Background

It is important to remember that in some cases individual fans are punished for their behaviour inside football stadiums. A seventeen year old Bournemouth fan faced a three-year ban and a £76 fine after pleading guilty to chanting racist abuse in 2020. A few years earlier a Tottenham fan faced a four-year ban and a fine when throwing a banana skin onto the pitch during a north London derby. The fan denied any racist intent but the court disagreed with his defence, declaring there was a racial element involved.

Such examples are numerous and can extend outside of racism too. In the 2018-19 season, a Chelsea fan admitted to using homophobic language in the away stands during a trip to Brighton. After pleading guilty to using threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour to cause harassment, alarm or distress, the supporter was fined £965.

In all these cases the fines are payable by the individual and not by the club. Additionally, the clubs can choose to take additional action themselves but this is not something dictated by the governing body. If individual fans can be punished then, why does this not apply in so many other cases?

One big factor is accountability. When it is one fan guilty of doing something wrong, it is easy enough to track them down and hold them responsible. When it is 10, 20, 30, or even hundreds of fans, it becomes a near-impossible job to identify the perpetrators. With no realistic prospect of identifying individual components of a disruptive mob, this means there are two possibilities. Either, no action is taken or action is taken against the club instead.

While it can easily be argued that clubs are innocent in such cases, there has to be some form of deterrent in place. If fans could simply set off fireworks or racially abuse players as part of a large group without punishment, the game would quickly turn into disarray. By punishing the clubs for rule-breaking behaviour, it encourages them to take action to minimise the risk of such instances happening. Not only facing a hit to their reputation but their finances too, it puts a real onus on clubs to take such matters extremely seriously.

What is expected of clubs?

CCTV Camera at Football Stadium

This last point raised brings us to an important question of what clubs can really do when it comes to misbehaving fans. Earlier we mentioned that Dynamo Kiev received a reduced stadium ban upon appeal because of the steps they had taken to minimise future acts of racism. Details of these steps were not made public but nothing they could have come up with could guarantee there would be no more repeat incidents. If a considerable portion of a match-going fanbase holds racist attitudes, there is always a danger this spills out during a game.

There are no strict rules on what clubs should and should not do but there are things seen as good practice. Greater segregation of fans is one thing that can help minimise trouble between home and visiting supporters. Wider stadium bans can also act as a larger deterrent. In 2020, the Premier League announced that any fan guilty of abusive, discriminatory or violent acts would be banned from every other ground in the top flight.

Concerning racism, football clubs do have the power to stop certain fans from entering the stadium. This proactive approach was used for a game between Korona Kielce and Odra Wodzislaw Slaski in which the home side displayed six recognised neo-Nazi figures at the ticketing office. When they arrived, they were stopped by security officials and the gate and made aware they were banned from the stadium. Clubs can also tighten security checks at the gates to ensure no racist/offensive/prohibited material can make its way into the stadium. It may be hard to stop someone smuggling in a small poster but much larger banners or fireworks should be easier to crack down on.

Is it fair that clubs are punished because of their fans?

Football Fans with Hands in the Air

If you view racist, homophobic or any other prejudicial view as a failing of society, then it seems very harsh that football clubs that end up punished for this. The teams themselves did not produce nor encourage these discriminatory views, and they ultimately have no knowledge over which fans hold what sort of views.

Likewise, clubs do nothing to encourage violent behaviour but they will still end up in trouble should some of their fans turn violent. Why is it that a nightclub is not punished when people end up getting into a scrap after having one too many drinks? But a football club is? Even when a football club has all the necessary security measures in place, this will not let them off the hook.

The system seems even more unfair when clubs are punished because of the actions of fans that occur outside of the stadium. In 2007, Catania were forced to play the remainder of the season behind closed doors, at a neutral venue, after riots occurred outside of their ground after the game. The horrific scenes, which resulted in the death of a policeman, were triggered by a fractious Sicilian derby with Palermo. Would, and indeed should, Catania still have been punished had the fighting occurred in the middle of town, or three hours after full-time?

Perhaps one fairer solution would be to introduce ticket restrictions, rather than complete bans. This is what happened to Slovan Bratislava who were punished for racist chants during a game against PAOK. When later hosting Wolves, only under 14s (accompanied by an adult) were allowed into the stadium. This enabled the Slovakian club to attract a decent crowd while massively reducing the chance of any unsavoury scenes occurring again.