The Sports Law & Policy Centre | ‘Illicit Chanting’ and Strict Liability
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‘Illicit Chanting’ and Strict Liability

By Roshan Gopalakrishna


Chanting by fans, often referred to as the ‘12th man’, has been recognised as an integral part of sport and is often seen as entrenched in sports culture. Clubs and teams encourage fans to create an atmosphere that encourages the team they support, but also intimidates the opposition and affects player performances. A little known fact is that clubs and teams often plan the design of their stadia and seating arrangements to ensure that the fans are seated as close to the playing area as possible. Turkish club Galatasaray SK’s former home stadium, the Ali Sami Yen in Istanbul has earned the sobriquet ‘Hell’ because of the loud and often violent atmosphere created by the fans. However, while the importance of fans cannot be underestimated, racial chanting, violence by fans, threats to players and managers, etc., all arising out of acts by spectators, are making an increasing presence, especially in professional football.

Illicit Chanting in Football

In December 2011, UEFA fined Scottish football club Celtic FC for pro-IRA chants by its fans during the Europa League group stage match against French club Stade Rennais F.C. The club was found guilty as UEFA’s approach uses the principle of strict liability, making a club liable for the behaviour of its supporters even though it has done its best to prevent such behaviour. Ironically, the Scottish FA had investigated Celtic over “pro- IRA” chanting by fans during the season and the club was deemed to have taken all reasonably practicable steps in its capacity to try and prevent such behaviour.

UEFA’s rules under Article 11.2 (e) outlaw the “use of gestures, words, objects or any other means to transmit any message that is not fit for a sports event, in particular if it is of a political, offensive or provocative nature.” Article 2 of UEFA’s Statutes elucidates UEFA’s avowed mission, i.e., the promotion of football in Europe in a spirit of peace, understanding and fair play, without any discrimination on account of politics, gender, religion, race or any other reason. Therefore, UEFA’s Statutes empower UEFA to implement any measures appropriate to achieve the objectives. However, UEFA Regulations do not define ‘illicit chanting’, thereby creating ample scope for subjective interpretation of and arbitrary application of the rule.

CAS Jurisprudence and Strict Liability for Acts by Fans.

he rule of strict liability has long found favour in sport, especially in the context of doping. In law, strict liability is a standard for liability which holds a person legally responsible for the damage and loss caused by his or her acts and omissions regardless of culpability. When applied in the context of professional football, member associations and the clubs have to bear strict liability for the actions of their supporters, even if the clubs are not at fault themselves. The principle is contained in Article 6 of the UEFA Disciplinary Proceedings and reads as follows:
‘Article 6 Responsibility 

 Member associations and clubs are responsible for the conduct of their players, officials, members, supporters and any other persons exercising a function at a match on behalf of the member association or club.

 The host associations or clubs are responsible for order and security both inside and around the stadium before, during and after the match. They are liable for incidents of any kind, and may be rendered subject to disciplinary measures and directives.’ 

In PSV Eindhoven v. UEFA [CAS 2002/A/423], Dutch powerhouse PSV Eindhoven was fined and warned of severe future sanction for racist behaviour by its fans during a UEFA Champions League match against Arsenal FC in 2002. UEFA had initially found the club guilty based on previous such instances and the club’s failure to prevent such behaviour by its fans. The club challenged the validity of the strict liability regime. The CAS upheld the validity of the principle of strict liability under paragraph 1 of Article 6, but decided that the club had not infringed paragraph 2 of Article 6 as it had made adequate security arrangements. The CAS justified the requirement of strict liability to combat racism and similar deplorable behaviour by fans as it seemed the only effective method to ensure clubs could regulate the behaviour of their fans in compliance with UEFA’s objectives.

The CAS award in Feyenoord Rotterdam v. UEFA [CAS 2007/A/1217] addressed the issue of the consequences of the applicability of the principle of strict liability on clubs, especially for acts of ‘supporters’ that are not officially recognised to be so by the club. In 2006, Feyenoord played the French club AS Nancy-Lorraine in the then UEFA Cup. Due to faulty sale of tickets by Nancy, Feyenoord fans resorted to violence in Nancy and within the stadium. Feyenoord claimed that the club could not be held liable as the rioters were not supporters of the club under the definition given to the term by UEFA, did not buy their tickets through Feyenoord, did not travel to the stadium under the guidance of Feyenoord, could not be identified from their appearance as Feyenoord fans, and some of them faced lifelong bans from stadiums in the Netherlands. The CAS sided with UEFA and held that in leaving the term ‘supporter’ undefined, the reasonable and objective observer could determine someone is a supporter of a club. Determinants that can help the reasonable and objective observer come to this conclusion are the behavior of the individuals concerned and where they are located in the stadium and their vicinity.

Similarly, in Club Atletico de Madrid SAD v. UEFA [CAS 2008/A/1688], Atletico Madrid was held strictly liable for racist and discriminatory behaviour by its fans during a UEFA Champions League group stage match against Olympique de Marseille and the failure of security personnel to adequately screen each spectator before permitting them to enter the stadium.


Despite the fact that UEFA has fined Celtic F.C. for the acts of its fans, ‘illicit chanting’ is itself not defined. In the absence of a clear definition and understanding of the offence, it remains unclear how any charge instituted on an offence of this nature would have any basis in law. It is interesting to note that circa 2006 UEFA had stated that pro-IRA chants were a nationalist issue, similar to the causes espoused by the Basques and Catalans in Spain, and therefore not prohibited.

The experiences of the 2010-11 season of the Scottish Premier League resulted in the enactment of The Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act 2012. Celtic F.C.’s manager Neill Lennon was attacked by a fan on the pitch and packages from Northern Ireland addressed to him, containing bullets, were intercepted by Royal Mail. The two largest clubs in Scotland, the ‘Old Firm’ of Celtic F.C. and Rangers F.C., are constantly engaged in what is increasingly a sporting rivalry bordering on sectarianism and centred around a series of complex disputes between the clubs on religion (Catholic and Protestant), Northern Ireland-related politics (Republican/pro-IRA and Loyalist) and history (Irish-Scots and Native Scots).

This remarkable legislation is quite possibly the only statute worldwide enacted specifically to address sectarianism and offensive behaviour in sport. The legislation is seen as a response to calls from Scotland’s police and prosecutors and gives them additional tools to crack down on sectarian songs and abuse at and around football matches and threats posted on the internet or through the mail. The Act criminalises behaviour which is threatening, hateful or otherwise offensive at a regulated football match, including offensive singing or chanting as well as communication of threats of serious violence and threats intended to incite religious hatred, whether sent through the post or posted on the internet.

However, the Act will only criminalise behaviour likely to lead to public disorder which expresses or incites hatred, is threatening or is otherwise offensive to a reasonable person. The Act creates two new distinct offences, punishable through a range of penalties up to a maximum five-year prison sentence and an unlimited fine:

  • The first offence targets any hateful, threatening or otherwise offensive behaviour expressed at and around football matches which is likely to cause public disorder.
  • The second offence relates to the communication of threats of serious harm or which are intended to stir up religious hatred, whether sent by post or posted on the internet.

No later than two weeks after the Act came into effect, the Glasgow Sheriff Court convicted and sentenced two men returning from a Scottish Cup tie for “chanting and singing songs of a racially derogative nature”, the first instances of prosecution under the Act. It remains to be seen whether other countries will adopt similar legislations to discourage racism and discriminatory behaviour at sports events.

Many governing bodies for sports have pro-actively adopted stringent measures to discourage racism in international sport. The ICC’s Anti-Racism Code for instance commits the ICC and its members to ensure that there is no discrimination in the sport. ICC members are required to impose punishments on spectators found guilty of racial abuse, including ejection from the venue to a life ban, and deliver preventative measures at international matches. In addition, members failing to uphold the Code face penalties if racist incidents happen at a venue under their control, including the possible withdrawal of international status from a venue.

Sport in India has faced its fair share of fans indulging in racist behaviour. In 2007, four Indian cricket fans were charged and evicted for allegedly racially abusing Australian cricketer Andrew Symonds by making monkey gestures during an ODI in Mumbai. Sports leagues, teams and clubs in India would be well advised to remain informed of the latest developments in the fight against racism and other forms of discriminatory behaviour by fans.


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