Three Chelsea fans were rejected from a game in Prague on Thursday night after racist singing in a bar. The Blues have long struggled with a right-wing faction among its support, but the problem goes beyond West London.
A visit to Stamford Bridge, the home of Premier League side Chelsea, is no different to a visit to any other football stadium in England's top flight.
On match days, Fulham Road is lined with stands selling overpriced street food, half-and-half matchday scarves and other unofficial merchandise while the modern-looking bars and pubs outside the underground station serve flat beer in plastic glasses. Stamford Bridge itself, located on the same patch of ground in wealthy Fulham since the 19th century, is now a modern, all-seater stadium where matches are preceded by booming music and a light show.
The crowd is also made up predominantly of a similar demographic to that found at most other Premier League stadiums across London, and indeed in other English cities – middle-aged, middle-class and increasingly well-off. Prices range from £36 to £65 ($47-$85) for the cheapest members' tickets at the least popular Category B matches.
It's a far cry from the Stamford Bridge experience of the 1980s when, at the height of English football's hooligan problem, the far-right National Front would distribute political literature on the Fulham Road and wait in the pubs until they had heard the team news before deciding whether or not to attend the match.
"If the Chelsea players were all white, they would then walk across and buy their tickets," Ken Bates, the club's former owner who sold Chelsea to Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich in 2003, told Britain's Daily Mail newspaper. "It's been a long, tortuous journey. Slowly, things have started to change and, 30 years on, it's a different world."
However, a series of recent incidents suggest that, even in the sterilized, gentrified environment of the self-proclaimed "Best League in the World," the problem has never been completely eradicated from Stamford Bridge.
In January 2017, four Chelsea supporters were handed suspended one-year sentences by a French court after being found guilty of aggravated violence against a black man on the Paris underground in February 2015. A video showed the men barring Souleymane Sylla's access to a train while supporters could be heard chanting: "We're racist, and that's the way we like it". A year earlier, Chelsea hooligans had been seen making Nazi salutes and heard shouting "Sieg Heil" during violence ahead of another Champions League game against Paris Saint-Germain in the French capital.
Earlier this season, ahead of a Europa League group stage game against Hungarian side Vidi in Budapest, images emerged allegedly showing Chelsea supporters posing with a flag bearing Nazi insignia as well as the word "Headhunters" – the notorious Chelsea hooligan group which was active in the 1970s and had well-established links to Combat 18, a neo-Nazi terrorist organization. After the game, UEFA opened an investigation into allegations of anti-Semitic chanting by Chelsea fans, although no action was ultimately taken.
Tough stance by Chelsea
And on Thursday this week, six Chelsea fans were filmed singing a song in a Prague bar ahead of their team's Europa League quarter-final first leg against Czech side Slavia Prague in which they described Liverpool's Egyptian striker Mohammed Salah as a "bomber." Three of the men were later denied entry to the stadium after being identified by Chelsea officials, while the other three are believed to have stayed away from the Eden Arena.
"Chelsea FC finds all forms of discriminatory behavior abhorrent and where there is clear evidence of Chelsea season ticket holders or members involved in such behavior, we will take the strongest possible action against them," read a statement issued by the club, which has been praised for its tough stance on racism and its work in combatting discrimination.
"It's the easiest thing in the world to tar all Chelsea supporters with the same brush," said David Johnstone, editor of Chelsea fanzine CFCUK and one of the Blues fans who made the trip to the Czech Republic. "I'm not condoning those guys' actions or their views but it was six people out of over 1,000 Chelsea supporters who were there. Unfortunately, every club has its racists."
Problem not exclusive to Chelsea
Indeed, while English football collectively condemned the racist abuse suffered by England internationals Raheem Sterling, Danny Rose and Callum Hudson-Odoi during a European qualifier in Montenegro earlier this month, recent developments reveal that the country has a problem much closer to home.
In December, a Tottenham fan was banned after throwing a banana at Arsenal striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in a North London Derby. And during Arsenal's Europa League game against Napoli this week, a Gunners fan uploaded a video of Napoli defender Kalidou Koulibaly which featured the word "Nigga.” Arsenal also condemned the incident and said it had "launched an investigation to identify the culprit.”
The problem goes far beyond the Premier League. According to figures quoted by The Guardian, anti-discrimination organization Kick It Out has received 80 reports of racist abuse in grassroots football this season, while total reports of discriminatory abuse rose by 11 percent last season, figures which are believed to be conservative due to the number of incidents which go unreported.
The abuse of Liverpool's Salah this week comes just days before the former Chelsea player faces his old club at Anfield in the Premier League this weekend. Ahead of the game, Liverpool coach Jürgen Klopp condemned the supporters involved but also cautioned against generalizations, saying the problem is bigger than football.
"It's disgusting,” said the 51-year-old German. "It's something that should not happen. But we shouldn't see it as a Chelsea or Liverpool thing; it's another example that something is wrong outside. It's only a few people but the stronger the reaction from the rest, the more it will help avoid things like this in the future."