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Can football chants ever go too far?

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LONDON, England, October 7- Football stadiums can be more than just arenas for the many who frequent the stands to watch their team. Like a church for believers of the faith, supporters flock to the communal ground of the terrace to cheer on the side, reaffirm identity with their “tribe” and to bond with their brothers in arms through shared experience and song.

The sight of individuals acting as a collective is as awe-inspiring in 2011 as one imagines it was in the Coliseum in Ancient Rome.

It is impossible not to be affected by 10 thousand souls singing in unison to spur on the club of their choice. It is why sport, and football in particular, creates such compelling television – the drama on the pitch and the reaction of the crowd spilling from the screen to suck in the viewer on the other side of the planet.

The forum stadiums provides to cheer, chastise and chant has long made football matches special; some argue such arenas are true bastions of free speech.

In Franco-era Spain, Barcelona’s Camp Nou home ground was one of the few places it was possible to speak Catalan without fear of punishment. Dissent towards the Mubarak regime in Egypt existed among the ultra fans of Cairo clubs Zamalek and Al-Ahly long before it spilled into Tahrir Square, and their games after the Arab Spring saw the feelings of change conveyed in song.

Football chants not only provide a vehicle for identity but for the expression of wit and humour too. Playground banter is mixed with wry comment to generate entertaining, if sometimes crude, repartee which has a magic of its own.

When Liverpool played Chelsea in the 1960s Anfield was beset by a thick fog which obscured the far end of the pitch. According to legend, when Liverpool took the lead fans from the end of the ground cloaked in mist, who had been unable to see the action, chanted to the other end “who scored?”. The reply came back in song: “Tony Hateley” to which the fans retorted “Oh, thank you very much, oh thank you very much!”

But with expression comes an evaluation of what is fair to express and what is not. Some songs go beyond mere support and are there to cause offence. Such is the problem with sectarian chanting at games between Glasgow Rangers and Celtic, the Scottish government is currently considering a law that would ban the singing of offensive songs at football matches. A five-year sentence could follow for anyone found guilty.

Samuel Eto’o spoke passionately about some of the racial chanting he was subject to during his time playing in both Italy and Spain, only time will tell how he fairs now he is plying his trade in Russia.

More recently the clash between English Premier League and London rivals Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur saw a minority of fans taunt Togo striker Emmanuel Adebayor about the gun attack on his national football team before the Africa Cup of Nations in Angola in 2010.

Adebayor was always going to incur the ire of fans after moving from one rival to another (with a few stops at Manchester City and Real Madrid in between admittedly), but to sing songs about an incident in which three people died was beyond the pale for the clubs.

In a rare moment of unity between the two sides a joint statement was issued which said: “[We] were extremely disappointed to hear the chants from supporters. Neither club tolerates foul language, racist chanting, homophobic chanting or any anti-social behaviour from its supporters.

“We shall be working closely with each other to identify the individuals involved.” Spurs added they would ban fans who were involved.

The fans were rightly admonished for their actions, and some would argue this is a good precedent to set for a game which has seen fans from both teams – who both have a tradition of Jewish support – subjected to notorious songs about Nazi gas chambers down the years.

The difficulty with the precedent for football more widely is in the determination of what constitutes an offensive song and a passionate, if witty, chant? How many soccer fans could honestly say they have never crossed the line?

Ben Wyatt is a CNN Digital Sport Producer

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