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The Criminalization of Scottish Soccer Fans

The proposed introduction of facial recognition technology has met with anger among Scottish football supporters, who see it as a further step towards criminalising the fans.

by Graham Ruthven
Feb 23 2016, 3:05pm

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This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

There are some places where invasions of privacy are to be expected. At airports, for instance, it's widely accepted that body searches, fingerprint impressions and x-ray scanners are the cost of safe travel. The same goes for CCTV in some public places and speed cameras on the roads. But a Scottish football ground does not immediately come to mind as a candidate for such Orwellian measures.

Others disagree. The Scottish Professional Football League (SPFL) has recently formed a working group to consider the proposed installation of facial recognition technology at stadiums across the country, as clubs look to combat anti-social behaviour.

In effect, this would entail the capturing and archiving of all supporters' faces at the turnstiles. Any banned fan would then be flagged to security and police at the venue, making it significantly easier for authorities to eject those who have been guilty of anti-social behaviour in the past.

A lot still needs to happen before facial recognition technology is found at stadiums north of the border, but its proposal only serves to heighten a sense of criminalisation among Scottish football fans. Supporters feel they are being treated with an unjustified distrust by the country's authorities and governing bodies, and tolerance of this is starting to wear thin.

It is rare to see any agreement between Celtic and Rangers supporters, but both fanbases have staged protests over the proposals, with banners at Parkhead and Ibrox calling for police and authorities to "recognise fans' rights." One sign held aloft by Celtic fans on Sunday urged them to "end the criminalisation of football fans." Supporters at several other matches also staged protests.

Regardless of allegiance, Scottish football's faithful feel they have been pushed to the brink, with the suggested implementation of facial recognition technology the latest move to marginalise those in the stands.

"We firmly believe it's more about posturing than anything else, whether it be from the police or the football authorities," says Paul Goodwin, director of the Scottish Football Supporters Association (SFSA). "It was thrown out at a time when Strict Liability was under discussion, and yet facial recognition became the headline grabber."

Indeed, the issue of Strict Liability – the standard used by UEFA for tackling offensive behaviour at football matches – and whether it should be adopted by Scottish football clubs has been the subject of perhaps even more significant debate in recent weeks and months. While it may be of little concern to fans, clubs in general are strongly opposed to something that would make them culpable for the actions of individuals.

Somewhat unjustly, this debate keeps the conduct of supporters in Scotland in the spotlight. To provide some perspective, 54 arrests were made at last year's T In the Park festival, which welcomed 85,000 music fans during a three-day event. In contrast, just 238 arrests were made over the course of the entire 2014/15 Scottish Premiership season, which saw over 1.7 million fans pass through the turnstiles.

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"Facial recognition at stadiums would be a sledgehammer to crack a nut," says Goodwin, citing similar figures to illustrate how the criminality of Scottish football fans weighs up in the context of wider society. "I met with the police not so long ago and they didn't mention that it was something they were interested in. We just haven't seen any evidence that warrants it."

In recent years, Scottish football in general has struggled to understand what its fans really want. For instance, just last week over 25,000 viewers watched two Scottish Cup replay matches on Periscope streams, making a mockery of the decision to schedule the fixtures without any live television coverage. Time and again, the sport north of the border demonstrates a worrying disconnect with its key demographic.

And at a time when Scottish football is in desperate need of grassroots development, as well as top-level investment, the installation of facial recognition technology is hardly considered a priority by the wider public. The national game should be seeking to attract new fans, not force existing ones away.

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Not everyone sees it this way, however. Mike Mulraney is the chairman of Alloa Athletic, who currently play in the Scottish Championship; he's also an SPFL board member and a figurehead of the working group looking into the installation of facial recognition technology. He believes the proposals have been misunderstood, calling the reaction "froth".

"One of the previous criticisms we had was that we didn't put forward ideas – we didn't consult people, we didn't get feedback," he explains. "So what we have done is put forward an idea and we're consulting. While I understand the reaction to an extent, I hear fans saying that they're being criminalised... that's absolutely not what we're doing."

Mulraney highlights just how challenging it is for clubs – particularly of Alloa's standing – to enforce banning orders for fans guilty of acting up, be it through the singing of sectarian songs, the use of pyrotechnics, or other misdemeanours. "We're finding it almost impossible to restrict access," he says.

"Our only way of doing so is to go to court and get a banning order, which is a slow, laborious, difficult thing to do. And, anecdotally, the allegation is that the people are still getting in. It's difficult to keep them out of the home end; it's almost impossible for away games. So basically what we're finding is that those with intent to cause trouble were doing it anyway, and it's incredibly difficult for us to police it."

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This follows much debate over the maligned Offensive Behaviour and Threatening Communications at Football Act, introduced by the Scottish National Party (SNP) in January 2012. Designed to combat Scottish football's age-old problem of sectarianism on the terraces, the bill has since faced widespread criticism, with one study (conducted by the University of Stirling and ScotCen Research) claiming that the law has placed new strains on the relationship between supporters and police.

Fans can now face up to five years in prison or an unlimited fine should they fall foul of the legislation, with threats posted on the internet also subject to the law. Critics claim, however, that the bill gave excessive powers to the police.

In retrospect, the legislation was rushed through – or "railroaded" as one opposition Member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP) put it – by a government anxious about the issue of sectarianism, particularly in the aftermath of the 2011 Old Firm match dubbed the 'shame game'. The Herald newspaper called it "knee-jerk legislation." Celtic – who, given the club's roots in Irish republicanism, feel particularly targeted – summed up the sentiment of many by officially labelling the act "unhelpful and counter-productive."

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Opposition to the bill is so strong that politicians have taken to using it for points scoring, with many featuring it as a key component of their general election manifestos last year. A Dundee judge even called it "mince" after a Celtic supporter was cleared of singing sectarian songs.

The fundamental problem with the act is the way in which it fails to colour the greyest of grey areas. What constitutes a sectarian song, and what is merely cultural expressionism? Does the legislation stretch to cover political statements? John Mason, an MSP representing the SNP, believes so, telling the protest group Fans Against Criminalisation that 'Yes' badges worn in the run-up to the 2014 independence referendum should be banned. As is the case with so many aspects of the game north of the border, Scottish football fans felt misunderstood.

"Over the years football has been marginalised when compared with other sports," says Goodwin. "In some respects we can understand that because of the history. But the various bills that are in place now – and the situation we have where you can get a pint at a game in England, but not in Scotland – these things just make fans feel like they're being picked on."

There are fans in every league across the globe who will claim they are unfairly treated by their respective footballing authorities, but perhaps nowhere do supporters feel so misunderstood and under-appreciated as in Scotland. Such malaise has become a symptom of the sport's decline – and facial recognition technology does nothing to ease this.

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Those who are pushing these proposals perhaps fail to appreciate the nuanced impact of their suggestion. The idea, in the mind of Scottish football fans, is enough to criminalise them. With CCTV cameras already watching fans at grounds, is there any real need for further surveillance?

"There is societal pressure on us to do something," insists Mulraney in response. "There is no chance of us being able to afford to do this [alone], and it is reasonable for football to say back to society 'do you want to contribute to making this better?' Then it's up to people to say 'yes' or 'no' to that – that's what government is all about.

"You've also got to ask what saves society the most money? At the moment, arresting people and putting them through courts is not cheap, and that's our only option. There is a substantial cost to policing football matches, so would these plans reduce that? That's something that has to be considered as well."

The average cost of policing an Old Firm derby is put at around £350,000. While most fixtures require much less financing, Mulraney's point holds some weight – ensuring the safety of fans is indeed expensive. It's estimated that the implementation of facial recognition technology would cost up to £4 million, with the Scottish government slated to subsidise any installation price. Those in favour of the proposal say it would quickly pay for itself.

Though they play in the same division for now, Alloa and Rangers are worlds apart in terms of size | PA Images

At Alloa Athletic's level, parliamentary assistance would be required should such proposals be pushed through. "How could we possibly afford it?" says Mulraney. Clubs higher up have the means to fund the plans, however, and so the question becomes one about who facial recognition technology would really benefit: Scottish football chiefs or society as a whole?

Mulraney rightly highlights that his proposals could still be knocked down, placing the plans at the mercy of democracy; given the anger they have prompted that seems almost inevitable. Similarly, the Offensive Behaviour and Threatening Communications at Football Act will surely not survive in its current form. The movement to permit the sale of alcohol at Scottish football stadiums – in line with almost every other sporting-sphere around Europe – is gathering momentum too.

But the damage might already have been done. Scottish football is charged with attracting a new generation to keep its stands full and its game prosperous, yet so many involved in its running seem determined to act to the contrary. Facial recognition technology might not directly drive fans away, but the ill feeling it would generate certainly could.

@grahamruthven