For the past two years, the Portuguese national supporters’ organisation, Associação Portuguesa de Defesa do Adepto (APDA), has been campaigning against the government’s plan to introduce an identification card for football fans.

This scheme is part of a wider package of reforms, dubbed Law Proposal 153/XIII, ostensibly aimed at clamping down on football-related violence. It was drafted with little input from football’s main stakeholders.

The Situation in Portugal

APDA have challenged the need for such measures, arguing that the problem in question is minor, while the proposed solution is disproportionate. They have also suggested that the law is likely to be counterproductive, as it could lead to a reduction in crowds, a problem with which many Portuguese clubs are already having to contend.

Unfortunately, despite their best efforts—including participation in legislative hearings and hosting the 2019 European Football Fans Congress (EFFC) in Lisbon—APDA’s protestations appear to have fallen on deaf ears. Government ministers recently expressed their intention to push ahead with their controversial proposals, which are expected to take effect next season.

APDA’s Campaign

In response, APDA coordinated a campaign in Portuguese stadia over the weekend of 8-9th February. They also released the following statement:

“We expect that the proposed fan ID card will become mandatory for all spectators in the ultras section during the 2020/21 season. Without this ID card, members of ultras groups will be unable to access their sections in the stadium. These sections will become the only areas where tifo materials, big flags, banners, and so on, will be permitted, which means that flags larger than 1.5×2 metres will be prohibited in the rest of the stadium.

In February, 28 fan groups from across the country (islands included) launched a collective protest to highlight the unfair nature of this system. These banners, which were raised during the 12th minute of every game, read ‘For the sake of all of us / We lay down this challenge / Against the fan ID!

We will, of course, continue to fight and show our discontent towards a system which we believe casts a shadow over the future of Portuguese fandom—one which demands that there is no space for an independent spirit in the stadium. We fear that, little by little, under the pretense of a ‘preventative fight against violence in football’, the authorities will end up undermining everything that is most beautiful about our game and those who follow it.”

FSE wholeheartedly agrees with these sentiments and stands in solidarity with APDA and Portuguese fans.

Déjà Vu: England and Denmark

As FSE have pointed out before on numerous occasions, forcing fans to register for and submit to an identification card scheme it is not a new idea. It has been proposed and has already failed in multiple countries across the continent. Indeed, wherever such a system has been trialed, most stakeholders have found it to be unnecessarily intrusive, impractical, and, perhaps most importantly, utterly ineffective in improving safety and security inside stadia.

In England, for instance, Margaret Thatcher’s government tried in vain to impose a “national membership scheme” on fans of all 92 professional clubs during the late 1980s. This would have required every match-going fan to purchase and use a “computer-read” ID card. Without it, they would have been barred from attending matches.

According to the first chairman of the then Football Supporters’ Association (FSA), Dr. Rogan Taylor, besides a couple of authoritarian Members of Parliament, nobody supported the idea, especially not those who were familiar with the realities of crowd management. Still, the government pressed on, while fans became increasingly organised in their opposition.

Sadly, it was not until the tragedy at Hillsborough on 15th April 1989, when 96 Liverpool fans lost their lives in a crush, that the authorities were forced to stop and take stock. The resulting Hillsborough Inquiry, chaired by Lord Justice Peter Taylor, blamed the disaster on police negligence, inadequate, or in some cases, hazardous, infrastructure, and severe overcrowding. In his final report, Taylor made over 70 recommendations, but was scathing is his appraisal of ID cards, rejecting them as “unwieldy, unworkable, and likely to increase the potential for hooliganism.” Taylor’s conclusion, it should be noted, was informed by hundreds of hours of consultation with fans and relevant experts.

A similar scenario arose in Denmark more recently. In 2012, after crowd disturbances at an Aalborg Boldklub – FC Copenhagen match caught the media’s attention, various stakeholders met with a view to devising policies to reduce disorder on the terraces.

As part of this process, the Danish Football Association’s decided to include mandatory ID cards for away fans, much to the surprise of supporters’ groups.

The national fan organisation, Danske Fodbold Fans (DFF), were understandably skeptical, and immediately launched a coordinated opposition campaign. This took many forms, from stadium boycotts by ultras groups to the collection of data from other countries and industries. At the same time, the DFF established links with politicians, football’s governing bodies, and civil society to argue their case and improve lobbying efforts. This eventually convinced the clubs, and the plans were scrapped. It also led to the implementation of structured dialogue guidelines at both a league and club level, as well as the introduction and development of the Supporter Liaison Officer role in the topflight.

Failing Bedfellows

In countries where the theory has progressed past the drawing board and been implemented, the indications are clear: it doesn’t work in practice either.

Experiments with ID cards in Belgium and Poland did not last long before they were unceremoniously dropped. Predictably, the introduction of an extra layer of bureaucracy coincided with a precipitous decline in attendances. The same is true in Italy, where the Tessera del tifoso, in place since the 2010/11 season, is progressively being phased out. Turkey, Cyprus, and Hungary have also suffered a similar fate, with half empty stadia now a common sight due to a combination of boycotts and declining interest.

Council of Europe’s Observations

And more to the point, ID cards seem to have had no significant impact on the problems they are supposed to address. If anything, they have made matters worse. As the Council of Europe´s Standing Committee on Spectator Violence observed in a , “[t]he scheme appears to be empowering rather than excluding or marginalising the influence of risk supporters.”

“The scheme”, it continues, “has resulted in traditionally rival supporters uniting, and working together, in opposition to the scheme. Certain elements within the established fan groups may have a vested interest in this opposition (to avoid detection etc.) but the strength of the resistance goes much deeper and, moreover, appears to be deterring thousands of potential well-intentioned supporters from attending even high-profile matches. This outcome is by no means unique to Croatia. European experience demonstrates that restrictive ticketing schemes do not provide an alternative to effective exclusion arrangements, nor, in isolation, can they hope to generate the kind of safe, secure and welcoming atmosphere that is likely to encourage a wider cross section of the community to attend matches. Furthermore, potential spectators can be deterred from attending matches by the prospect of having to join a ticket registration or voucher scheme, not least because such schemes are often perceived as indicative of the football experience being neither safe nor secure.”

In other words, there is absolutely no evidence that fan ID cards improve security at football matches or enhance the safety of spectators.  

The Necessity for an Evidence-Based Policy

What, then, makes the Portuguese authorities think that their attempt will produce a different outcome? Einstein allegedly said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. The subject at hand certainly seems to fit that definition.

There is, of course, an alternative to this approach, one which has a proven, though not perfect, track record. Evidence based policymaking would require the Portuguese authorities to (a) engage in meaningful dialogue with those who are directly affected by their decisions and (b) conduct a sober analysis of the available data.

At the level of national legislation, details and outcomes have always been more important than intentions. Fan ID cards are no exception.  

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