Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Sparta Brace Themselves for Further Problems despite Ruling over Racist Fans

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Sparta Brace Themselves for Further Problems despite Ruling over Racist Fans

Article excerpt


THERE will be 6,000 empty seats at the Toyota Arena in Prague tonight when Arsenal attempt to enhance their chances of reaching the knockout stages of the Champions League. And fewer than 200 Sparta Prague fans are to blame.

During Sparta's clash with Ajax last month, the opponents' black players were subjected to racist abuse by a core group of rightwing supporters, with striker Ryan Babel a particular target.

UEFA, who have been accused of being slow to take action following years of racist complaints, finally acted by fining Sparta around [pounds sterling]20,000 and ordering the club to close one-third of their 18,000-capacity stadium for the visit of Arsenal - a measure that will cost them a further [pounds sterling]130,000.

Arsenal's team feature a number of black players who would be natural targets for the three rightwing groups that make up the racist factions among Sparta's supporters. Their former captain Patrick Vieira, who is now with Juventus, suffered horrendous abuse during a Champions League clash for the Gunners in Valencia two years ago.

The feeling in Prague today, however, is that nothing will change. With Kick It Out, football's antiracism action group, in the middle of a 12-day campaign to raise awareness of the problem, there are fears that the Czech supporters will put the issue in the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

That will come as no surprise to anyone at Arsenal. Prague may be the most cosmopolitan of the cities liberated when the Iron Curtain was dismantled but that has not prevented the emergence of ultra rightwing football fans who use their new-found freedom to voice their racist views.

In neighbouring Slovakia and the normally tranquil city of Bratislava, Arsenal physiotherapist Gary Lewin and England international Ashley Cole experienced the problems at first hand during an England qualifier for Euro 2004.

The torrent of monkey chants that greeted Cole from the stands when he was off injured and being treated by Lewin came as no surprise because the black players of England were on the receiving end all afternoon. …

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