On 1 June, the KNVB football association announced that a pilot will be launched at three clubs with ‘smart technology’, with the aim of combating discriminatory chants in stadiums. Under the motto: our football belongs to everyone. That sounds wonderful, but this opens the door to Chinese situations under false pretenses and with the help of artificial intelligence; a surveillance company for football fans.
The plan, which is sponsored for a million euros by the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport, should curb supporters in three different ways. At Feyenoord, an unspecified innovation is used to ‘signal, register, identify and sanction undesirable behaviour’. Think of determining ‘determining environmental variables that cause undesirable behavior’.
At PSV it is more concrete: sound cameras in the stadium are used to measure and localize the involvement and enthusiasm of the fans. The follow-up sentence is less pleasant: „The technology can be used simultaneously to artificial intelligence detect anomalous sound (anomaly detection). A human ‘operator’ can then listen live or afterwards and take action if necessary.”
The ‘Smart Safe Stadium’ project will start at PEC Zwolle: “A visitor’s access to a stadium is linked via an app to a personal ticket of the stadium visitor in order to improve social safety in the stadium.”
Improving social safety, identifying undesirable behaviour, signaling deviant behaviour: these are extremely flexible concepts, which are also linked to human interpretation and freedom of movement. It takes little imagination to realize that with the use of these resources, total control over the behavior of supporters is possible. It seems to be a description of the stadium of the future, plucked from a dystopian novel. Were it not that this pilot will still start next football season.
It sounds unlikely that the state attorney for the posh Pels Rijcken has ruled that these plans are compatible with privacy legislation. However, the court has already had to blow the whistle on the central government several times when technical innovations in the field of privacy are put into practice. Apparently the following applies: the proof of the pudding is in the eating.
Also read: Where does the flare-up of football hooliganism come from? The KNVB does not know
More about that in a moment. Now the reason. In 1989, during the European Cup match between Feyenoord and VfB Stuttgart, thousands of German fans made monkey noises when dark Feyenoord players Paul Nortan and Regi Blinker touched the ball. This disgusting habit was eagerly picked up in Dutch stadiums. In the early 90’s you could hear the ‘jungle sound’ in almost every Dutch stadium. Thanks to a better approach to football violence and the arrival of new stadiums, the atmosphere improved. In addition, the fanatical following of most clubs became more diverse. Monkey noises were simply no longer tolerated in the stands.
Unfortunately, the problem was not completely eradicated. At the first division match FC Den Bosch-Excelsior in 2019, racist booing from a group of idiots again sounded. They could not be identified. This is an outdated stadium, which was poorly lit at the site of the accident. This incident from three years ago is now being used to unleash Big Brother on the football supporters. As terrible as the incident is, this one-off incident in no way justifies the rigorous plans. In the stadium of my own club PEC Zwolle, for example, I have not heard any racist noise for twenty years, so why this disproportionate plan?
Then an even more important point: privacy. As said, the KNVB is coloring within the lines with this, according to the state lawyer. Given the scope of the innovations and apps that are used, it is highly questionable how reliable this prior legal judgment is. The national government also made a serious mistake with the anti-fraud system SyRi, and was called back by the judge. It is good to know that the KNVB does not work with large companies, which should know how to handle privacy-sensitive data. No, there is collaboration with young, innovative companies, such as the Siip Group, which has been nominated for the Innovation Prize of Region Zwolle.
I’ve been coming to my club for 35 years, the stadium is a place where I feel connected and safe. Where I can sing, scream and sometimes swear heartily. I abhor the idea of someone behind a big screen going to decide for me what is decent. If someone around me is racist, I will grab him by the scruff myself.
“Being a supporter means being together and being free,” wrote Armenian anthropologist Levon Abrahamian. It’s a beautiful statement that, thanks to these plans, can go in the trash.