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Published on November 29th, 2018 | by Bill

Smile, You’re On Camera

Why British fans should heed the warning of Fan ID Cards in Cyprus

Sion Phillpott, writing in STAND Issue 27.

After a summer which saw the country finally get to grips with a major tournament (while seemingly playing Belgium on an endless loop), a return to the sobering Brexit quagmire of London v Brussels has at least provided some sense of continuity in the return to reality. Yet while England’s venerated superstars were indulging fantasies in Russia, a more concerning prospect has been brewing at home: the controversial issue of ID cards are once again in the limelight.

In some cases, they are simply being proposed, subject to discussion with fan representatives, such as with Liverpool; in others, though, decisions have already been taken – and not necessarily with any supporter input. For example, Ipswich Town and Norwich City have already announced reciprocal arrangements for their two upcoming league meetings this season, demanding that all away supporters present at those matches provide photo ID in conjunction with their ticket. Both clubs – as well as the police, with whom this decision was reached – have seen a flurry of disorder arrests during recent fixtures between the two.

Millwall, meanwhile, were ordered by the EFL to introduce a compulsory ID card scheme for their travelling supporters at the end of the 2016-17 season, following a widely publicised pitch invasion after their League 1 Play-Off Final that year; they are the first and, to date, only, British club to receive impositions of this kind.

Of course, exponents will point out that these actions are reactive and not without provocation, and that to take no action would imply condonation or, at the very least, indifference towards the troublesome behaviour that preceded them; they might even argue that the identification and punishment of guilty individuals in any future cases would be a far easier and more accurate process under such measures. But the implementation of an ID card system as a security solution has long been considered anathema; ever since Margaret Thatcher and David Evans tried and failed to enforce such a scheme upon a post-Heysel footballing public in the late 1980s, the concept has been ridiculed by numerous opposition groups, as well as labelled counter-productive – ethically and logistically – by the Taylor Report which defeated it.

So why are the FA and several of their member clubs suddenly interested in rekindling the idea now? “We want everyone present at the games to enjoy themselves,” read the official Norwich statement that accompanied their original announcement, “but in the right spirit and in a safe environment. These measures have been introduced to help this happen” . Nobody wants to feel unsafe in a football ground, of course, but when you consider that no other country has tackled disorder and hooliganism as effectively over the last 30 years, and that British stadia are among the safest in the world, the average fan of both these clubs may be entitled to feel slightly criminalised by such a draconian measure; a poll subsequently conducted by a local Anglian newspaper would suggest that this is a majority sentiment.

Of course, at the time of writing, these are still relatively isolated actions; there is no other evidence to suggest that an ID card “renaissance” is impending. Certainly, no official government policy currently exists in this regard (nor is it likely to be created in the post-Hillsborough review climate), while the recent public furore over data and privacy regulations mean that any potential proposal could descend into an unappetising legal quagmire. But the current default setting of reluctance shouldn’t breed complacency among fan activists, and it certainly shouldn’t suggest that this is an issue which will dissipate; indeed, a quick glance across the channel suggests just the opposite.

Unlike in the UK, numerous European leagues have been trialling and implementing ID card schemes for some time now; one of the more extreme examples is Cyprus, where the Cypriot Football Association (KOP) have recently implemented government legislature that will require anybody entering a football stadium to be in possession of a designated fan ID card. The policy isn’t just aimed at season ticket holders or away fans, either; casual attendees looking to take in a game will also be turned away, unless they have registered for one of the fan cards in advance.

The full repercussions of this decision aren’t yet clear, even though the scheme was actually voted through the Cypriot parliament back in 2014. But if last season – where all away fans were required to show photo ID at stadiums in a so-called ‘trial run’ – is any indication, the signs aren’t promising.

Already, many of the country’s biggest fixtures have become damp squibs off the field, with almost all organised ultras groups boycotting en masse; as an example, the Limassol derby – traditionally a vibrant 50/50 square-off within the shared home ground of Tsireio – produced a lopsided and insipid atmosphere on each of the occasions that it was played, while even a potential title decider between Apollon and eventual champions APOEL (played, bizarrely, at 5pm on a Wednesday afternoon), was a shadow of the intensity that that particular rivalry often breeds. With the extra checks in place, it has become necessary to arrive for some matches up to 2 hours early, while the process of entering an away stand is now akin to boarding at Heathrow; a holidaying colleague surmised the situation aptly, when remarking upon his return that, for once, it was nice to use his passport for travelling instead of football.

For some, all of this is apparently a positive thing. Despite a fervent but disorganised resistance from individual fan groups (no supporter’s federation exists in Cyprus), a recent poll by the University of Nicosia actually showed overwhelming public support for the idea, while over 70,000 people have voluntarily registered their details already. Negative public sentiment isn’t all without justification, either; the KOP will point out that there are regular incidences of objects being thrown onto pitches and fans engaging in small-scale violence, while in December 2017 a match between AEL and APOEL was suspended for 2 hours after a flare thrown from the away section hit a ball-boy.

Yet while not condoning these incidents, they serve to prove that photo ID is not a particularly practical solution; each one occurred at a match where the ID policy was in force and no individual recrimination or punishment was handed out. Instead, it simply highlights what Justice Taylor already identified 30 years ago: that you cannot eradicate or minimise crowd disorder by issuing people with a card. Cyprus’ issues run deeper, of course; most of the stadiums do not possess adequate CCTV capabilities, while the utilisation of integrated police representation, co-operative intelligence gathering, and effective stewarding are essentially non-existent, too. As UK fans already know, developing these measures requires patience, funding and the cultivation of positive relationships between fans, clubs and the police; given the lack of domestic funding and the volatility of Cypriot fan groups in general, none of these facets look to be readily forthcoming.

But there is another more universal issue that the KOP may be less keen to highlight. Although the current television distribution rights for the domestic league are technically subject to a bidding process, most clubs are under the coverage umbrella of Cyta, the state-owned telecommunications network. As a result, many supporters feel that a complex ID card scheme is simply a cynical attempt to maximise government revenues through increased pay-per-view subscriptions, a move supplemented by the extra dangling carrot of exclusive Premier League and Champions League coverage.

If that sounds speculative or conspiratorial, it gets worse; from the 2019-20 season, the KOP will implement their own direct online streaming service where viewers can select and purchase live matches, individually or in bundles, negating even the need for expensive subscriptions. Given the increasing administrative difficulties that supporters will have to endure simply to set foot inside a stadium, the option of streaming a match for 5 euros will no doubt become an increasingly enticing alternative; it’s not difficult to imagine the Premier League conjuring up a similar, albeit exceptionally more expensive model, either, when the next TV rights bidding process takes place.

Fortunately, it’s not quite a death knell for the Cypriot domestic game just yet; remarkably, in a league that has been awash with accusations (and, indeed, convictions) of match-fixing in recent years, it’s testament to the game’s popularity that fans continue to withstand such scornful treatment from those in its charge. It also remains to be seen just how strictly the policy will be enforced on the ground, given that copious amounts of pyro still seem to elude the mandatory turnstile pat-downs every week. But a blanket ID card scheme could prove a step too far, even for the weary terraces of Cypriot football; fans in the UK might well start to question how far their own levels of tolerance can stretch.

Indeed, it’s a question that all fans across the continent are asking themselves, and in almost all cases, the answer is resounding. In each of the leagues that have trialled or implemented ID schemes, including those currently active in Italy, Turkey and Hungary, attendances have decreased gradually but severely, with many clubs regularly playing in front of sparsely populated stands; in Belgium and Poland, the respective authorities even abandoned the practice following concerns about the long-term consequences for their leagues.

British clubs and authorities might also consider the advice of the Council of Europe’s Standing Committee on Spectator Violence, too, which provides actionable guidance to governments, police agencies and even fans themselves; a telling passage in their 2015 report observes that “when treated with respect and in a hospitable manner, (supporters) are far less inclined to cause or become involved in violence or disorder” . Meanwhile, an oft-quoted report by the same body on the effect of ID schemes in Croatia asserts that ID schemes “deter thousands of potential well-intentioned supporters from attending matches” and that they are not an alternative to effective exclusion arrangements1; if fans themselves are to be excluded from the discussion, then surely a publicly-funded EU case study should prick the right ears.

Back at home, the actions of Norwich and Ipswich are, for now, the exception, but while this concept remains tentative it is vital to ensure that it does not somehow become the norm. After all, in an age where television subscriptions are worth more to clubs than season tickets, and where customers will readily hand over their money and their personal data without a second thought, it’s not an entirely unrealistic prospect.

In the meantime, it would be wise to listen to supporters themselves – especially those in countries where ID schemes have become commonplace. Fans should not have to feel like offenders or have their personal data potentially mined for monetary gain, and they certainly shouldn’t be made to register on a government database for that most simple, basic and unbridled of sacred privileges on a Saturday afternoon.

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