Monday, September 04, 2006

Fiery fans give England added bonus

UEFA has warned the Football Federation of Macedonia (FFM) that it will award a 3-0 victory to England in tomorrow’s European Championship qualifier if there is a repeat of the crowd trouble that marred their last visit to the former Yugoslav Republic.

Steve McClaren’s second competitive match as head coach takes place three years to the day since his predecessor, Sven-Göran Eriksson, secured a narrow 2-1 win in Skopje in a match overshadowed by racist abuse from the home support.

In a malevolent atmosphere, Emile Heskey was greeted with monkey chants almost every time he touched the ball, flags of St George were burnt in the stands and there was a violent undercurrent on the pitch, with Artim Sakiri, the former West Bromwich Albion midfield player, threatening David Beckham with the chilling words: “You’re going to die tonight.”

The FFM was fined Sw Fr25,000 (about £11,000) for failing to control its supporters on that occasion, but faces a far stiffer punishment if there is a repeat tomorrow night. European football’s governing body changed its regulations last month in order to comply with section 59 of Fifa’s disciplinary code, giving it new powers to award matches by default, deduct points and even dis qualify associations from their competitions in the event of violence or racist abuse.

“The difference with three years ago is that the sanctions at our disposal are much stiffer,” William Gaillard, the Uefa director of communications, said. “Macedonia risk losing the game 3-0 if their supporters misbehave. There are fines, suspension, ground closure and the loss of points and the match itself for serious offences. We have the ammunition if anything goes wrong. There were serious breaches three years ago but a lot of good work has been done since then. We hope that the mixture of education and threats will deter people from behaving badly. But the fact that there have been incidents before will be a factor as recurrence will be punished severely.”

Piara Powar, of Kick It Out, the campaign against racism, welcomed Uefa’s stance, which may help Ashley Cole, Rio Ferdinand and Jermain Defoe to escape the treatment dished out to Heskey. “If we saw any problems this week, we could more or less guarantee that Macedonia would be clobbered with a ban and a fine,” he said.

A total of 400 police, including a dozen officers from Scotland Yard, will be on duty at the City Stadium. Unlike three years ago, when 500 England fans defied the FA’s wishes not to travel, segregation will be strictly enforced with the 3,000 travelling fans sitting well away from their 15,000 counterparts.

Racism is far harder to police, though, as Zoran Nikolovski, the FFM’s press officer, acknowledged. “We do not have problems with physical violence but sometimes other types of bad behaviour from the stands,” he said. “It’s difficult to say that we’re absolutely confident it won’t happen again. There could be problems with racist chanting, whistling the English anthem or issues with the flag.

“The federation has worked very hard with supporters to get rid of this type of behaviour. We’ve put a lot of information in the newspapers pointing out that we could be punished. I think there will be a very good atmosphere and that people will only think about football.”

Macedonia’s standards have slipped since they ran England close in two European Championship qualifiers — drawing 2-2 at the St Mary’s Stadium before taking the lead in the home defeat — but the appointment of Srecko Katanec as coach in March appears to be working. The team have lost just once in four matches under the Slovenian, who led his country to the finals of Euro 2000 and the 2002 World Cup, and began the present campaign with a win in Estonia.

“We’ve got a good team and have a chance to be first or second,” Sakiri said.

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