Over the past few years, pitch invaders have become a constant bane of stadium security in the game across the world. The stewards guard the sideline and give chase when needed, but the publicity received often sways those bold enough to jump the fence.
Fortunately, the tamer version of the events largely outnumber the more aggressive ones, but no matter how sparse, the violent incidents are reprehensible in a manner that makes them inexcusable. The players are exposed on the field, and pitch invaders who evade immediate capture pose a significant threat if filled with ill-intentions.
Consider the incident with Jack Grealish on Sunday morning. The Aston Villa star, captaining the side for the first time, was rushed by a fan in the stands who sucker punched the 23-year-old in the head from behind. Grealish did not see it coming, and it is by nothing outside of blind luck that the punch was not more devastating.
Now consider the possibilities of a violent pitch invader reaching a player with a more sinister instrument besides his bare fist. If fans can sneak pyrotechnics into a stadium, they surely can work in a knife or a shiv or something worse. Just a single occurrence of that nature would send shockwaves through the soccer community and undoubtedly result in sweeping changes in stadium security and fan access to the game.
So what has buoyed fans to run onto the pitch at such a rate? Consider the aforementioned tamer versions of these incidents. Players with worldwide star power like Neymar, Lionel Messi, and Cristiano Ronaldo have all faced pitch invaders with clearly harmless intentions in the recent past, and have treated them with kindness, often interacting in a positive manner with these folks, even occasionally offering to take a selfie, sign their shirt, or give up their own clothing or gear. Often times those running onto the pitch are children, hoping to earn a moment with their lifelong idol, unaware to fully grasp the true extent of the consequences.
While those moments are precious and make for beautiful opportunities to praise the graciousness of the players, they have potentially ugly side effects. As the benign pitch invaders make waves across the viral community, it serves to spark and embolden those who may have more malicious intentions. In the end, it is impossible to know the true nature of a pitch invader’s intent until they reach the player they intend to target.
Players, therefore, have a responsibility to their fellow athletes to turn away and shun pitch invaders and allow stewards and security officials to do their job protecting those exposed on the field. As unfortunate as it is, the days of adorable moments between players and pitch invaders should end soon, or the game risks the safety of its players and the relatively generous access to their favorite clubs and role models they enjoy these days.
Pitch invasion has no place in the game of football, innocuous or otherwise, and when stadium security fails as the first line of defense to protect those on the field, it falls to the players to stop glamorizing the attention-seekers and do their best to dissuade any more violent encounters.