Taken together, a series of recent news items about Chelsea tell an unsettling story.
Now infamously, a foursome of Chelsea fans got in the face of Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling on
Dec. 8 hurling abuse at him as he picked up a ball from by the boarding surrounding the field. One of the men stands accused of using racist language.
Dec. 13 brought reports that Chelsea fans were singing anti-Semitic and homophobic songs in a Europa League away game at MOL Vidi in Budapest, Hungary.
— Charlotte Hodges (@CharHodges88) December 13, 2018
Chelsea quickly condemned the chanting while UEFA investigates, just as the club banned the four who had verbally accosted Sterling from its stadium.
But then, more news. On Dec. 16, a picture did the rounds of eight Chelsea fans in Budapest, reportedly members of the Headhunters hooligan firm, posing with a flag that had, among other things, a Nazi symbol on it – a skull associated with the SS.
Then came word that before Chelsea’s next game, away at Brighton, some fans chanted anti-Semitic
verses on the train, before police put a stop to it.
Finally, to cap Chelsea’s 10 days of PR horrors, the Guardian reported that police are now actively
investigating the rampant and systemic racial abuse in the Chelsea youth academy during the 1980s and 1990s, when it was previously reported black players as young as 11 were routinely bullied by a group of coaches.
Several of them are now suing the club for damages.
Perhaps you’ll recall that as recently as October, Chelsea announced that it would attempt to
rehabilitate some of its racist fans by sending them to a kind of re-education program at the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. The scheme was apparently driven by the club’s Jewish-Russian owner, Roman Abramovich. And that was before all this.
“If you just ban people, you will never change their behavior,” Chelsea’s chairman Bruce Buck said at the time. “This policy gives them the chance to realize what they have done, to make them want to behave better. In the past, we would take them from the crowd and ban them, for up to three years. Now we say, ‘You did something wrong. You have the option. We can ban you or you can spend some time with our diversity officers, understanding what you did wrong’.”
The trouble with this approach, of course, is that bigotry isn’t a behavioral issue but a prejudice
surfacing in actions.
Regardless, there is evidently a problem at Chelsea. Even if it’s likely a very small minority of its fans that holds bigoted views and feels empowered to show them publicly. But there is now a long history of incidents like these at the club. In early 2017, four Chelsea fans were found guilty of preventing a black man from boarding a train in Paris before a match against Paris Saint-Germain two years earlier, and chanting “We’re racist, we’re racist, and that’s the way we like” as they did so.
And now, an attempt at an explanation.
Chelsea, in a lot of ways, is the archetype of the foreign-owned club. Its takeover by Abramovich came sooner than most of the big clubs that got new ownership in the Premier League gold rush of a decade ago.
And, in a lot of ways, Chelsea changed more than most of the other big clubs. Liverpool’s succession of American owners changed it very little. Manchester United remained the juggernaut that it already was after its own American takeover, albeit one now saddled with debt repayments. Arsenal was the team that was rarely quite as good as it was supposed to be, still managed by Arsene Wenger a decade into its American majority-ownership.
Chelsea, like Manchester City later on, was transformed completely. It was a working class team of
habitual also-rans who usually placed in the top-half of the Premier League and had only recently begun dabbling in European football when Abramovich came along. Until then, Chelsea didn’t seem to have the stuff of a club that would ever win the top-flight title again, having gone without one since 1955.
It was most famous for its hooligans, the aforementioned Headhunters, and its habit for fielding tough guys like Dennis Wise, the self-explanatorily nicknamed “Chopper” Harris and, briefly, Vinnie Jones, pre-movie career. Chelsea had a decided edge to it. And then the millions came pouring in.
The old stadium was renovated and a mall was added to it. Only the fanciest of players and most
promising of prospects were signed. And soon enough, the club had five more league titles along with a Champions League and Europa League trophy.
But that element in its fan base remained, albeit now surrounded by stockbrokers and lawyers and
other yuppies. Every now and again, that old identity convulses back to the foreground, a spasm of the past, showing that it’s still there, deep down.
Chelsea, if nothing else, provides a lesson that you can’t entirely gentrify the hatred and bigotry out of a fanbase. It needs to be addressed separately and comprehensively. Or else, no matter how glamorous the club becomes, the ugliness lingers.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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