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Sep 21, 2011

Foootball fans, a law unto themselves

Little is said in the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights about football fans, while they are also overlooked in bills of rights across the globe. This may sound rather dramatic, but in the Netherlands neither football fanatics nor casual followers have proper legal protection. A recently-introduced Dutch football law has been under scrutiny recently as several cases have been hitting the courts, while the handing out of stadium bans also remains in the spotlight.

After Feyenoord fans went on the rampage through Nancy on an UEFA Cup night in 2007, there was no stopping the lobbying for new measures as people in the Netherlands sought to follow the example of Britain in stamping out hooliganism. So in came the Voetbalwet (Football Law) as part of a ruling to prevent repeated inner-city crime. Wrongdoers can be banned from designated neighbourhoods for three months and under this law it is possible to prevent a football supporter going on an away trip when he has built up a criminal record as a fan. He then has to sign in at the time of the match at his local police station.

However, there is a Kafka-esque catch. When giving such a ban, the city seeking the action must prove that the fan in question has repeatedly caused trouble in the area in question. This is easy to do with a local thug, but an away fan will only be in the vicinity once, maybe twice a year in. Say the supporter travels to Rotterdam for an away game, he/she can have a record of several offences all over the country, but only the ones in Rotterdam count as repeated trouble in court. Whenever a case comes up in appeal, the judge acquits the fan for a lack of proof.

This law is poorly adapted to the specifics of football hooliganism. One Ajax supporter received a ban only three days before the Dutch Cup final in Rotterdam last May. When he filed for the case to be dismissed, all the administrative judges in the area were on holiday. He ended up in a civil court, where the judge in question was surprised by the carelessness of the law and noticed that this particular fan could easily travel the 30 miles to Rotterdam and cause havoc near the stadium, even after reporting in at his local police station. But the law is the law and the fan was free to go and attend the game.

The Voetbalwet is a law to keep a person out of a city. Earlier this century, the clubs had introduced a specific policy for their home supporters. Firstly, you need a clubcard to buy tickets for an Eredivisie match. It helps a club to identify the supporters, while other clubs can keep them away, if they like. Ajax-clubcard holders cannot buy tickets for Feyenoord games and vice versa. This measure was followed by the implementation of stadium bans. Buying a ticket automatically means punters must comply with specific conditions within the stadium boundaries, which have essentially become a criminal law territory in their own right. Non-compliance leads to a ban.

If you cannot show any ID when asked, you can expect a ban for three months, while going on the pitch keeps you out for five years. Any kind of violence is severely dealt with and the sentence is doubled when the trouble is performed against players, officials or club employees. Stewards have taken over the control inside the stadium from the police who usually stay outside the ground.

Stadium bans and clubcards have undoubtedly cleaned up the terraces; parents with children have returned, while there are an increasing number of women in the stands. The only problem with the stadium bans is the lack of legal transparency. A supporter is dealt a stadium ban by official letter in the mail and it kicks in with immediate effect, before the accused has a chance to be heard. He can appeal at a commission, though its members are appointed by the club and the evidence usually comes from club stewards or CCTV cameras. There is no independent judge to monitor the proceedings.

One Ajax fan received a lengthy ban for entering the pitch when he was caught on camera and it was only after several months of being prevented attending games that he finally proved Luis Suarez had gestured him to come on the pitch and receive his shirt. Other cases have involved supporters joining in hate chants. To be picked out and banned for a year, when thousands in the stand all sing the same lines seems grating and arbitrary. And although it is understandable that clubs like to back their stewards, it is a bit peculiar that their reports are considered evidence of an equal level as those coming from a qualified police officer.

All stadium bans dealt out at a club are implemented nationally by the Dutch FA, keeping those convicted away from other grounds and the national team. However, when someone is acquitted by a criminal judge for the act which caused their stadium ban, it is lifted automatically.

This is a double-edged sword though. One girl was in a car waiting for friends who had gone to throw things at the windows of a referee and despite not being involved she received a three-year stadium ban just for being in the neighbourhood as 'she knew very well what they were up to and should have stayed at home'. Her club, Roda JC, tried to reverse the decision after reconsidering, but could not get through the system at the Dutch FA. All her hopes rested on an acquittal but the local District Attorney decided to prosecute her friends and not her, dismissing her case and thus preventing her from earning an acquittal. Without it, her stadium ban could not be legally rescinded.

Eighteenth century British lawmaker Sir William Blackstone once said: "It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer." Although the Eredivisie games are a safer visit, there remain serious questions about the legality of these measures.

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