Gareth Southgate admitted that England are on a “yellow card” when it comes to hosting major events after the scenes that marred the Euro 2020 final at Wembley last summer.
England’s reunion with Italy at Molineux will be played behind closed doors – a scenario that Southgate labelled “an embarrassment” – after Uefa issued the FA with a stadium ban for crowd disorder before and during the defeat against Roberto Mancini’s side.
The first of England’s Nations League games against Hungary at the Puskas Arena in Budapest will also be played without fans after the Hungarian FA was punished for “discriminatory behaviour” by supporters during the Euros.
“We’re on a yellow card,” Southgate acknowledged. “We are where we are. We’ve got the embarrassment now of playing behind closed doors at home. Normally when you watch those things having happened abroad, we’re grandstanding about how it’s someone else’s problem and how this country should be dealt with and now it’s us.”
Southgate added that the crowd trouble affected the squad for “weeks”. Some players had family members and friends caught up in the violence as ticketless fans attempted to force their way into the stadium.
“It was one of the additional things that upset them the most,” he said. “We finished the game and had the disappointment of losing the game and then we had the racist abuse of the boys [Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka] and wrapped up in all of that, people who were having to deal with what happened inside the stadium. We were all dealing with that for weeks really and that wasn’t a pleasant experience for anybody.”
Poor behaviour from supporters has been a hot topic of late with numerous unsavoury incidents occurring after pitch invasions in the Premier League and Football League play-offs.
Sheffield United striker Billy Sharp required stitches after being headbutted by a Nottingham Forest supporter, who has since been jailed for 24 weeks, two Manchester City fans attacked Aston Villa goalkeeper Robin Olsen on the final day of the season and Crystal Palace boss Patrick Viera kicked out an Everton fan after being provoked at Goodison Park.
“We’re in a difficult moment as a country,” Southgate acknowledged. “I recognise that for many people in society there are financial difficulties and maybe that’s playing a part. We’ve been in a pandemic with huge restrictions for a long time. I’m not wanting to be the pied piper with this but I know that I’m in a position of responsibility so I should speak as I feel and that’s what I think.
“Why are we filming ourselves abusing other people or taunting other people looking for a reaction? Football has to try to manage it but once people are in a ground that’s what you’re doing, managing it as best you can and then the behaviours are there and going to be apparent outside the ground and everywhere else.”
He added: “I’m not a sociologist, I don’t know why it is. Alcohol or drugs are a part of that equation without a doubt but we seem to be accepting certain behaviours that aren’t acceptable.
“It’s no different to when I’m on holiday and I see people not behaving themselves as they should be. You’re embarrassed if people [misbehaving] are English because that creates a difficult environment for the next English people that travel there. We are all tarnished when that happens. People that are watching the [Euro 2020] final here, that’s their view of English society by what they see so that then affects all of us basically.
“I think football is looking at what has happened over the last few weeks and feeling that there needs to be a response to it. Obviously, people are in other meetings dealing with all of those things and having those discussions and that’s happening within the FA for certain. I don’t think it needs to scale up anymore than it has, it’s already beyond where it should be and where is acceptable.”
Analysis: Billy Sharp assault shows pitch invasion culture has gone too far
By Daniel Storey, i‘s chief football writer
I understand the argument in favour. For some – for almost all, in fact – pitch invasions are purely an expression of joy.
There is clearly some planning involved; watching as fans climb over small walls and advertising hoardings in anticipation disproves the truth that this is a simple reaction to the euphoria of triumph (on Tuesday at the City Ground they were forced to wait as two consecutive penalties went against them).
Even so, very few who enter the pitch do so with the intent of anything other than basking in the magic of the moment. Do a kneeslide, touch the grass, pretend for a second that everyone was here to watch you.
Yet the tone has undoubtedly shifted. Passion, rather than a pure unwitting reaction, has become weaponised.
The norm now is for some fans to shun congregation around their heroes and the rushes to hug one another, but to approach opposition fans as a show of aggravation.
You can create your own theory: anti-establishmentism from supporters fearful that their culture is being beige-washed; cocaine culture – although there is no hard evidence for this cause and effect yet; a reflection of growing societal and political unease; growing tribalism that means taunting the opposition is as important as celebration; a reaction to the psychological impact of lockdowns that reinforced how much football meant and thus provoked a freedom of behaviour when they ended. As always, there is no one answer.
The only real conclusion is that this is all a damn shame. Nobody wants to regulate joy and nobody wants to tarnish the reputation of the many due to the actions of a grim few. Football supporters have too often been unfairly lambasted en masse by Governments to the point of victimisation. But we have a problem, one that isn’t being policed effectively and isn’t being self-policed either. Something needs to change before it escalates to the point where we have an incident that nobody wishes to even conceive.