Sport Soccer

Wednesday 22 November 2017

Apathy and fear tighten grip on society that can't be arsed

Dion Fanning

Any week in which you find yourself saying, "I'm with Bernie Ecclestone on this" is a troubling week.

Any week which ends with you wondering, "Will somebody think of Phil Neville?" is a week when it's clear that everything has changed.

On Wednesday, Ecclestone pleaded with the authorities not to cancel this weekend's Premier League fixtures because of the message it would send to the world.

Neville then announced that, while he understood that Everton's game had to be called off, he was depressed at missing the season's opener.

We had all flirted with that depression when it was suggested that policing issues would see the weekend's games called off. It may have been the first sign that English society was prepared to reinvent itself when the police, Premier League and Football League arrived at the point when we could rejoice and the games were on.

Safety must come first was the cry before that. Nobody wanted to point out that English football matches don't actually require much policing or that the police had successfully managed not to police the first night of looting without the distraction of football matches.

Few wanted to think any differently last week. The left had their answer and the right had their counter-argument.

On one side they mocked the idea that the looters could be deprived. How could they be deprived when they had their expensive BlackBerrys? In a consumer culture, if you have a BlackBerry you can't be deprived. Maybe you can't even be unhappy

On the other, they blamed the cuts as if a wild class of the alienated and lawless had grown from scratch in the year since the Conservatives took power.

To emphasise this point, some took the words of the two girls who were interviewed on the BBC as a sign of this political meaning. The girls had been up all night drinking when they told the reporter that it was "the government's fault . . . the Conservatives . . . whoever it is, I don't know."

Peter Oborne, whose outstanding biography of Basil D'Oliveira demonstrates that he is a political writer who understands what really matters, tried bravely to link the two.

"Most of the people in this very expensive street," he wrote of a London dinner he attended recently, "were every bit as deracinated and cut off from the rest of Britain as the young, unemployed men and women who have caused such terrible damage over the last few days."

This will make many people uncomfortable, especially if we now have to examine the underlying causes and traumas that have driven bankers to behave as they do.

Footballers occupy a special position. Premier League players have, in the most part, moved from the world whose inhabitants shut down much of London last week to an environment furthest away from them.

They remain connected, through family and experience, but utterly isolated through wealth and an ability to get what they want when they want it. The only thing wrong with instant gratification, as the old joke goes, is that it takes too long.

The riots reflected the 'can't be arsed' society. The suspicion of intellectualism and learning in much of England has now mutated into an overpowering sense of apathy, a militant lack of curiosity among many people.

The story I heard in South Africa last year reflects that world. Two English boys drawn from the sort of communities which looted last week were flying to South Africa to take part in the Football for Hope tournament. When they arrived at Heathrow for their flight they didn't need the aggravation. They had a chance to see the world, experience things they had never experienced but they couldn't be arsed. Instead they went home and prowled their streets, safe and unchallenged by an experience that might have changed them.

This story is not unusual or surprising. There is a version of it in the cynicism that only masks the fear in the typical English dressing room. Talk to any professional and they will tell you that their biggest worry when doing interviews is the concern they'll be ridiculed by their team-mates.

Graeme Le Saux was assumed to be gay because he had spent much of his summer holiday driving through Europe with Ken Monkou. If he had spent it having sex with a woman while several other men were present he would have fitted in more comfortably.

Ashley Cole fires off an air rifle in the Chelsea dressing room for no reason except he can.

The fear of being different and of education is the thing that unites many levels of English society.

As they read out the occupations of some of the looters last week, it was hard not to think of the times when they did the same with football hooligans and wondered how estate agents and bankers could behave so violently. We shouldn't be so surprised anymore.

Those of us who have come to live in London know that it is a tolerant, accepting and stimulating city, thanks, in many ways, to the multiculturalism which is supposed to have failed again last week.

But there is an apathy and fear too. When the England squad issued a statement appealing for calm, it was read by Adrian Bevington, a well-meaning representative of the corporate class.

The FA decreed that it was not for the players "to dissect the social debate". Nobody could argue with that, but this was just another way of saying they should know their place. They were not responsible for the looting and they had no obligation to stand up and be a representative of anything. Also, they had to be protected from looking foolish.

For once, they could have done things differently and forgotten about the consequences. They could have talked as some of them tweeted and they could have been authentic without, for once, the fear of mockery. They didn't need to be role models or leaders, they just needed to be trusted.

A man called Sheldon Thomas appeared on Sky News on Wednesday. Thomas works with gangs. He was so persuasive he managed to draw some humanity from Kay Burley. He talked about the gang culture and his desire to look beyond the superficial which, for the purposes of his point, included the looting (Burley only briefly bristled).

"It is better to have a society," he said, "where hope is the main focus."

Hope is a frustrating, vague and painful thing. Often it comes from going to places you have never been prepared to go before.

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