Yet again, it has been confirmed that football is more important than life and death. The UEFA Cup semifinal between Leeds United and the Turkish champions Galatasaray went ahead in Istanbul last night, despite the fact that two men had been murdered in violent street clashes in the run-up to the match.
Apparently, in the hours after the men had died, there was some consideration of the idea of cancelling the game. But these were soon brushed aside. Instead, Leeds United fans already in Istanbul were asked to stay off the streets. Those still planning to travel turned up at the airport to find that charter flights had been cancelled, while those planning to travel independently were asked to reconsider.
Also, in the immediate aftermath of the deaths, worried minds found their thoughts racing to other football fixtures which might have been put at risk by the killings. Would the deaths of Christopher Loftus and Kevin Speight jeopardise England's chances of hosting the 2006 World Cup? Would the "dreadful incident" have any bearing on Euro 2000 in June and July? Let's hope not. God forbid that a couple of men bleeding to death on the street should have any impact on the fantastic spectacle that is football.
The old conundrum that is world- class soccer demands to be kicked about once again. How can football get on with organising lucrative soccer competitions, rewarded only with the huge amounts of money it can leech off the fans, without entering into a mutual relationship whereby it takes responsibility for the behaviour of its paying customers?
Football clubs and organisations such as UEFA always adopt the same strategies when trouble occurs. Despite the fact that they would not exist without football fans, they always attempt to distance themselves from the disruptive, or even murderous, elements, while at the same time claiming that they have the "real" fans' interests at heart.
But the interests of the "real" fans would be best served in the long term if proper respect was given to them at times like this. The decision of UEFA, of Leeds and of Galatasaray to steam ahead with their plans even though a couple of "real" fans are dead, is tantamount to declaring that their lives mean nothing in the greater scheme of footballing things. Such a signal only serves to encourage the view that football is something that it is acceptable to be truly "fanatical" about.
In the meantime, with the important decision made to plough on no matter what, the race is on to apportion blame as far away from home and as far away from football as possible.
At a local level, all England is keen to blame the Turks, as if English and Hooligan were laughably oppositional states. It has been stressed that Leeds United fans have shucked off their love affair with violence and have been well-behaved since the start of the1990s. I myself find the fact that two Leeds men are dead to be persuasive evidence that Galatasaray aggression was the greater.
Meanwhile, it has been emphasised that Galatasaray's fans are "notorious" and that many Leeds United fans were advised not to go to the match because of the violence of the fans and the lack of support from the Turkish police. Nevertheless, for many, the fall-guys this time are the Turkish police, who ought to have "stopped the violence". They have now vowed that they will bring the killers to justice, but this is seen as rather too much of a rear-guard action.
But what is even more amazing is that in decades of international football trouble, there is no recognised procedure which dictates what happens in situations such as these. Again and again we see pre-match violence. Perhaps the knowledge that such violence will guarantee the stopping of a match would concentrate the minds of those keen to start fights.
Of course, no one could have predicted that two men would die as a direct result of this footballing fixture. But at the same time, the mind boggles at the idea that everyone but UEFA is to blame for this tragedy. Does this organisation consider itself to have no responsibility for arranging inflammatory events which result in deaths? Should it really be left to fans' organisations to warn supporters that their team is taking part in a game which may be hazardous for them to attend?
The fact that such a match was allowed to go ahead is proof of the irresponsibility, immorality and contempt of those who run football. We see it all the time, on all levels. Here in Britain, violent men, who have abused wives and girlfriends, are still allowed to get out on a pitch every Saturday, or even to "represent their country". There, in Istanbul, a team with a reputation violent fans is still allowed to take part in international competitions. The fact that Leeds has itself been banned from Europe in the past makes this incident the more sickening. Leeds fans seem to have learned their lesson. Why then did they find themselves in competition with a club which appears not to have?
Wouldn't it have been more fitting to simply remove both teams from the competition at this stage? While this may seem to be a terrible punishment to inflict on Leeds United as a club, I would have thought that respect for the two fans who have died would have led to the conclusion that further involvement in a competition which exposed these men to such risk was a slight to their memory.
Meanwhile, a solicitor has spoken to the press on behalf of the family of one of the dead men. Sue Speight has an eight-year-old son and a two- year-old daughter. She is too distressed to make a statement. Her solicitor, Philip Howell says: "The family is devastated by what has happened. They are deeply shocked and are trying to come to terms with the loss of a husband and father. His daughter does not understand what is happening."
Well, I don't understand what is happening either. I don't understand why the loss these people have suffered is not important enough to disrupt a game. There has also been talk of how to stop Turkish fans coming over to Britain when the return match is played. This idea is a little absurd, though no more absurd than the rest of this debacle. I reckon that the best way to avoid this difficulty would be to remove the problem at its root, and have no return match either.
It is an unsporting sport indeed which does not let little things like the scale of violence seen on the streets of Istanbul the other night get in the way of its plans. If the continuing violence which dogs football is to be stopped, it can only be stopped by those who run football, who must acknowledge the link between what happens on and off the pitch, for players and fans alike.
Instead of trying to distance themselves from all forms of trouble, footballing organisations must accept that their detached and venal attitudes help to attract these elements. The view which dictates that two men stabbed to death on a street is no bar to the staging of a football match is nothing but an extreme example of this shameful culture. The mantra that it is all for the sake of the fans should be taken by them all as a message from their beloved football club telling them exactly how valuable their own lives are considered to be.