As Tottenham Hotspur began their Europa League campaign last night, the poor goalless football match was overshadowed by racist abuse from the travelling Lazio fans. Throughout the second half Jermaine Defoe, Aaron Lennon and Andros Townsend were subjected to monkey chants from pockets of the 1,500 away supporters.
In all three cases it was not the constant noise of booing but the sickening staccato sound of repeated monkey noises directed at three of Spurs' black players.
It started early in the second half as Tottenham were attacking the goal at the southern end of White Hart Lane, by the lower-tier corner where the Lazio fans were stood. Defoe was first victim, and was targeted on at least three separate occasions. Lennon, attacking that corner of the pitch, also suffered as did Townsend, who came on for Lennon with eight minutes remaining.
After the game, the Spurs manager, Andre Villas-Boas, said that Uefa should investigate any wrongdoing but said that he did not hear anything specific. "Obviously it's for the authorities to follow any kind of investigation," he said. "I wasn't aware of anything, I was focussed on the game, from the players I haven't heard anything. Uefa is very, very active on this kind of situations. Our general objective is exactly to kick racism out of football. But I can't point the finger in any way tonight because I didn't hear."
It gave an unpleasant edge to an evening that was otherwise merely tense and frustrating. Tottenham, facing a competitive and disciplined Lazio side, had two legitimate goals disallowed and ended with a 0-0 draw.
The goals, both headers from Gareth Bale crosses, were scored by Clint Dempsey and Steven Caulker, two of the three players brought into the side by Villas-Boas, the other being £8m goalkeeper Hugo Lloris. Villas-Boas clearly values the competition – he owes much of his reputation to winning it with Porto in 2011 – and he picked a side very similar in make-up and strength to that which won 3-1 at Reading on Sunday.
Villas-Boas insisted afterwards that he was pleased by his players' display, and that teaching them the importance of this competition was worthwhile. "I am happy with performance, we played extremely well and I am extremely happy for that," he said. "We looked positive and attacking, we put the ball in the goal twice, and from mistakes from the referee we could not get the goals we deserved."
After Harry Redknapp's rather ambivalent approach to the Europa League, Villas-Boas hopes that by picking strong sides against good teams he can teach the players to share his enthusiasm. "What is important today is for our players to understand that this is an important competition of high value," he said. "Not because of the financial returns of it, but because of the emotions of the fans. The objective is to change the mentality of the players regarding this competition and to play to win."
Despite having such a strong side out, Spurs were largely frustrated by a regimented and tenacious Lazio team who have won all three of their Serie A games so far this season. Cristian Ledesma led the fight in midfield while Miroslav Klose's movement was threatening up front.
Although space was limited for both sides, Spurs had occasional chances to get in behind the visitors. Bale headed tamely at Federico Marchetti before Dempsey, taking Gylfi Sigurdsson's role behind Defoe, believed he had headed Spurs into the lead but was incorrectly flagged for offside.
Lazio only had one real chance, when Alvaro Gonzalez volleyed against the bar just before the break, and the second half was all Tottenham. Defoe slid in Lennon, whose shot was hooked off the line by Luis Candava. Lennon ran at Gonzalez, who committed two bookable tackles on the winger but was only booked for the second of them.
Bale started to find his range with his set-pieces. His free-kick reached Sandro at the far post but the midfielder could not turn it in. Then, 20 minutes from time, a Bale corner-kick was headed in by Caulker, but Romanian referee Ovidiu Hategan penalised him for pushing Stefano Mauri. Townsend added late threat, but was not quite smart enough with his openings, and Spurs had to settle for a point.
Man of the match Bale.
Match rating 6/10.
Referee O Hategan (Romania).