When thousands of football supporters voice their wish that a player from another team had died in a terrorist outrage, it is safe to say that the ensuing debate will be lively. One of the craziest things, perhaps, about Emmanuel Adebayor's treatment at the hands of the Arsenal support at White Hart Lane on Sunday is that the Tottenham Hotspur striker's abusers felt they had any defence at all.

Yet at the root of the emotions and the complex and seemingly unresolvable social arguments was a sense of frustration and helplessness. The Adebayor chant, which was bellowed by what sounded like the majority of the visiting enclosure at regular intervals during the first half of the derby, seemed like a new low. In reality, bile of similar proportions has been spouted at English grounds for decades. Only the previous week, at Elland Road in the Carling Cup, Leeds and Manchester United followers traded insults relating to the Munich air disaster and the murder of two Leeds fans in Istanbul. Examine any bitter club rivalry and there are plenty of stories, over the years, of deeply unsavoury chants.

The helplessness is felt by the game's authorities, together with right-minded supporters, who surely continue to represent the silent majority, when ways of confronting and resolving the issue are sought. There is little appetite, however, to pursue arguably the only measure that would have real clout, apart from, of course, police prosecutions for the individuals who cross the ultimate line. A small number of Tottenham fans, for example, were charged with shouting homophobic abuse at Sol Campbell in 2008.

The idea of implementing sanctions against clubs, such as the docking of points, for the bad behaviour of supporters presents a minefield. And that is before highly paid lawyers comb through the small print. How can one chant be deemed more or less offensive than the next? How many fans need to be chanting it? Where is the line to be drawn? People have different moral thresholds and there is an understandable reluctance at the Football Association to set any precedent.

Police and match-day stewarding teams face similar thorny judgment calls. Moreover, when many hundreds of supporters are chanting in an obscene manner, the police can hardly arrest them all on the recommendation of the stewards who, as a rule of thumb, police the inside of the stadiums. No arrests were made over the chanting in Sunday's north London derby.

The FA has reacted to the events at White Hart Lane, which also saw Tottenham fans sing a deplorable song about Arsène Wenger, the Arsenal manager, by opening talks with both clubs. They did the same thing after the Leeds v Manchester United match. The governing body wants to ascertain what each club did to guard against such chanting and it hopes to work with them to stamp it out in future. Tottenham and Arsenal issued a joint statement on Monday, in which they condemned the abuse and said they did not tolerate "foul language, racist chanting, homophobic chanting or any anti-social behaviour from supporters". Working together, they intend to "identify the individuals involved".

The FA has pointed the clubs towards its good practice guide, which deals with this aspect of crowd control. The governing body has ideas on how to address the problems, including the use of CCTV to identify ringleaders, police and stewards filming the stands, the deployment of covert personnel and messages through various media. An example of the latter is how the Manchester United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, has used his programme notes to appeal to his club's fans to stop the abuse of Wenger. Education and self-policing by the clubs and supporters appear to be the most viable way forward.

To explain how such a high percentage of a group of supporters could feel justified in wishing death upon a player in a gun atrocity would require sociologists' theses. But it is safe to say that the disconnect between many fans and top-level players is greater than ever, and it is only heightened when players behave as Carlos Tevez did while on the Manchester City bench at Bayern Munich last week.

Empathy is low to non-existent, there seems to be an underlying resentment towards players and there is a theory among supporters that anything ought to be allowed. The game has taken great strides in the battle against hooliganism and racism, among other things, yet verbal abuse from the stands is a stain. It is doubtful that it will ever be eradicated.