Misconduct by supporters has been all over the news again after last week’s firework incident during the KNVB (Dutch Football Association) Cup Final match between FC Ajax and PEC Zwolle. The match was interrupted for half an hour and supporters managed to cause EUR 66,000 worth of damages in ‘De Kuip’ – the stadium of Ajax’ arch-rivals Feyenoord Rotterdam. For Ajax, this incident potentially has legal consequences from two different angles.
First, the KNVB has instructed its prosecutor to open an investigation, which could lead to disciplinary sanctions for the club. Ajax stated that it would try to recover any possible sanctions from the supporters. It should be recognized, however, that this is only an option if the imposed sanction is a fine and if individual troublemakers can be identified. As many supporters masked themselves during the acts, this quest is not as straightforward as it might seem at first sight. Secondly, the question whether recourse for the fine will be accepted by the national courts remains yet to be seen.
For the second angle we turn to the damages resulting from the cup final, which include damages to the turf of the stadium as well as toilets, sinks and lights that were destroyed. As the KNVB rented the stadium for the occasion, ‘De Kuip’ will seek compensation from them, who in turn will look to Ajax. According to art. 41 of the KNVB’s ‘Reglement Wedstrijden Betaald Voetbal’ (professional football match regulation) a club is obliged to pay damages that are the result of disorder if this disorder is caused by its supporters. Considering Ajax’ subordinate relationship to the KNVB, the organisation will probably not run into problems when recovering these damages. However, in other cases the situation might be different. If damages occur to a person or another organisation (a club for example) that does not have the same power position, can they also turn to the club for compensation and invoke this provision? And will the KNVB actually take steps to ensure compensation for the losses incurred or will the victim have to bring its case before a national court? For victims of misconduct by supporters it is important to provide clarity on these questions and the cup final incident provides an excellent opportunity for a much-needed nuanced debate. In this light, the KNVB’s statement on its website that “these people (troublemakers) have nothing to do with football” is either very naïve – as sociological research clearly established that violent supporters are very much fans of the clubs – or perhaps looks to relieve the clubs from taking responsibility for their fans and for the risks that unfortunately come with their main revenue-generating activities. Let’s hope the comment belongs to the former category.
Finally, unlike the April 22 front-page article in Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad would suggest, this type of supporter misconduct is not a predominantly Dutch problem. The same weekend as the Dutch cup final, the Swiss cup final also resulted in problems with fans from Zurich creating over EUR 30,000 worth of damages in the city. And German football, too, seems not able to escape from supporter violence with five clubs being sanctioned by the ‘DFB Sportgericht’ this month alone. There is thus still a long way to go to before football in Europe can rid itself of misbehaving supporters. And maybe such a day will never come. In this context, civil liability of clubs for the damages caused by their fans, when the individuals cannot be found or are insolvent, will at least provide the victims of this violence with a means for compensation.