Racist chanting in football

Football fans have a proud tradition of chanting at football matches. These chants can be supportive or critical of their team, critical of the opposition, hostile, crude, humorous, and on occasion seemingly pointless.

Football chants often also contain within them words, ideas or themes that could be deemed offensive. Examples include references to famous disasters including the Munich Air Crash and Hillsborough, as well as murders, brain tumours, paedophilia and rape; all expressed with frequent smatterings of swear words.

Sadly, football chanting also has long history of racism, both overt and covert.

The first black professional footballer in England was Arthur Wharton who played in goal for Darlington, Preston North End, Sheffield United and Sunderland among others between 1885 and 1902. No records exist of Wharton being subjected to racist chanting, but it wouldn’t be long until examples of racism in football hit the national news.

Dixie Dean

Dixie Dean (Copyright unknown. Please contact us if you have information.)

As early as the 1930s, Everton hero and the current record goal scorer in English football, Dixie Dean was subjected to abuse at a game in London, which culminated in Dean punching the offender before retreating into the tunnel. Dixie Dean, who was an England international between 1927 and 1932, was believed by some to be of mixed race, perhaps because of his dark complexion or because his nickname “Dixie” was thought to refer to origins in the southern states of the USA. None of this appears to have any basis in reality.

Thirty years later in the 1960’s ‘monkey chants’ and bananas being hurled onto the pitch became more frequent, with black players blaming the rise of the National Front as an influence on the terraces.

Then in 1974, an eighteen-year-old Viv Anderson, who would go on to be the first black footballer to play for England, was subject to what he would later describe as “dog’s abuse, really vicious” in a game at Newcastle. Twelve months later, while warming up as a substitute, Anderson was pelted with apples, bananas and pears at Carlisle. Anderson retreated to the bench, where he reported the incident to his manager Brian Clough and was promptly told to “get your ******* arse back out there then and fetch me two pears and a banana”.

Racist chanting, in English football at least, reached its shameful pinnacle in the 1980s. Despite fifteen years having elapsed since the 1965 Race Relations Act, and with racism in decline in society as whole, racism remained rife within English football. Players were routinely subjected to ‘monkey chants’ and as late as 1988 black England superstar John Barnes was famously photographed nonchalantly back-heeling a banana away, which had been hurled at him moments earlier. The banana incident came four years after Barnes had scored a goal against Brazil which is still widely heralded as England’s greatest ever.

Why racism in football remained as rife, despite a gradual disappearance from society as a whole, is a complicated mix of social and psychological factors to do with crowd mentality, tribalism, machismo and the make-up of the crowd itself. Whilst the make-up of a football crowd is changing, football crowds remain predominantly white, male and middle-aged. The attitudes a football crowd therefore tends to exhibit, is by extension likely to be those white, middle-aged men carry. In 2013 a study published in the journal Science on changing opinions and tastes found that younger people reported their tastes and opinions had altered much more in the previous decade than their older peers. The circumstantial evidence of football chants backs this finding up and suggests that chants appear to reflect beliefs which were more prevalent in previous generations. The proliferation of racism in football in the 1980s, despite coming fifteen years after the Race Relations Act, bears this out.

Encouragingly, whilst by no means completely eradicated, thirty years on, with the creation of the ‘Kick it out’ campaign and another anti-racism Act of Parliament in the shape of the Racial and Religious Hatred Act, 2006, racism is now much rarer within football and isolated incidents receive widespread media coverage, condemnation and prosecution.

John Barnes

John Barnes (Copyright uncertain. Please contact us if you have any information.)

This juxtaposition of societal condemnation but ongoing isolated incidents was exposed in May 2014, when in Spain, in a scene resembling the one involving John Barnes described previously, a banana was thrown at Barcelona’s Dani Alves by a fan of Villareal as he went to take a corner. The act itself proved that racism is far from eradicated from football. However it also drew criticism from across the world, with players, fans and pundits expressing revulsion, particularly in an internet campaign which mimicked the classy response Alves gave, when, instead of kicking it away, he picked up the banana and took a bite. The incident also inspired a subsequent show of support with players, fans and pundits around the world uploading images of themselves eating bananas to social network Twitter with the hashtag #weareallmonkeys. The fan who hurled the banana at Alves was subsequently found on CCTV and permanently banned from attending matches.

Racism has not been completely eradicated, however. Allegations of racist chanting or abuse have blighted matches throughout the 2014-15 season, with two examples from the club I support, Norwich City. On the opening day of the season Norwich fans reported racist chanting from within their own fans at a match against Wolves, and just this week their match against Leeds United was halted halfway through the first half to allow Norwich striker Cameron Jerome to make an official report to the fourth official about an alleged racist comment from Leeds defender Giuseppe Bellusci.

Europe too continues to be blighted by problems. This month alone Levski Sofia fans were spotted with a “Say yes to racism” banner in a Bulgarian league match, whilst Manchester City’s Champions League match with CSKA Moscow was held behind closed-doors after racist chanting from CSKA fans in an earlier game against Roma.

In my own experience of attending football matches in the UK, which I have done regularly since 1996, I have personally never heard ‘monkey chanting’, or overt racial abuse directed at a player, and I believe that were such abuse to be heard it would be sung by a minority and the majority would act to stamp it out, as was the case at Wolves on the opening day. A similar thing happened at Port Vale recently when fans made an official complaint to the club, going as far as to request a section of their ground being closed following reports of racist chanting from their own fans.

Whilst overt racism has been on the decline, less obvious examples of racism including chants such as “no surrender to the IRA” persisted long after the 1997 Northern Ireland Good Friday peace agreement. England fans were being asked to refrain from singing it as late as May 2013, whilst Stoke fans were filmed singing it at their Premier League game away at Arsenal in May 2011; a game with no connections to Ireland, or religion. Variations of the song have long been a staple of the Glasgow derby. The fixture between the traditionally Catholic Celtic and Protestant Rangers has a long history of sectarian division, including chants both in support of the IRA (Celtic) and in opposition to them (Rangers). The problem became so bad that the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Bill was hastily passed through the Scottish parliament in early 2012, specifically to target sectarian hatred in Scottish football.

There is good news however, with efforts continuing to eradicate racism from chanting and football as a whole. The examples from Norwich and Port Vale above are just two of many, led by clubs across England.

Elsewhere, in Germany, the Hamburg-based FC St Pauli have an identity and fan base constructed around their opposition to fascism and right-wing politics. Official club merchandise includes t-shirts bearing the slogan “Love St Pauli – Hate fascism”, whilst their Millerntor-Stadion home is decorated with murals painted by the fans themselves, including one which spells out that the Millerntor is; “No place for – homophobia, fascism, sexism, racism”, in five foot high letters; sentiments that paradoxically express a hated opposition to hate itself. St Pauli were the first club in Europe to officially ban racists chants and Nazi banners and in 2014 the club made official complaints to the German Football Association after a mural reading “No football for fascists” at their Millerntor home was covered up during a national team training session. Fans’ chants include “Never again fascism, never again war, never again the Third Division,” “Nazi raus,” which translates as “Nazis get out,” and “Who are the betraying rats? Social Democrats. Whose betrayal will we never see? Surely it’s St Pauli.”

As the St Pauli example highlights, although there are many more, it is important to state that football chants are by no means all bad. The majority are not abusive, in terms of race or otherwise. At their very best chants create an atmosphere without which football would not be the interactive spectacle that made it England’s national game. Whilst racism is divisive, the purpose of football chants is to bring diverse communities together, the antithesis of racism. After all, any group of people who, when losing 6-0, after a 300 mile round trip can proudly sing; “We lose every week, you’re nothing special, we lose every week”, is worth saluting.

As poet laureate Andrew Motion remarked; “Chants are the lifeblood of our stadia, typifying the spirit, the passion and the wit of the beautiful game”.

That is not to say that football chanting and those who engage in it, should be given carte blanche to sing whatever they want, and the continued crackdown of abuse which draws on prejudice should be wholeheartedly supported.


Former sports journalist and current Norwich City and FC St Pauli fan, Andrew Lawn, has a bachelor’s degree in Politics and Media from the University of East Anglia. He has previously published numerous articles on English, German and international football.

His book ‘Who are ya, who are ya, who are we?’ is available from the publisher Booktango

You can follow him on Twitter: @Lawny1986