Sport Soccer

Wednesday 23 October 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'Beautiful game attracts ugliest fans'

Eric Dier of Tottenham Hotspur wearing rainbow laces during the Premier League match against Southampton on Wednesday. Photo: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images
Eric Dier of Tottenham Hotspur wearing rainbow laces during the Premier League match against Southampton on Wednesday. Photo: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

The 1970s were desperate, weren't they? Bananas being thrown at footballers, comedians making sexist remarks at awards ceremonies, football managers aiming jibes at gay people. Thank God we've got away from all that stuff.

Hang on. My mistake. These particular incidents didn't happen in the '70s. They happened last week.

There's a particularly popular piece being written at the moment (it's basically the same article being rewritten by different people) about how Political Correctness has gone mad this weather. These days we're apparently living under the jackbooted tyranny of the Social Justice Warrior.

Maybe there was racism and sexism and homophobia in the past, the writer will admit, but they're long gone and now the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. Sure you can say nothing these days. Everyone's a liberal now.

It is, as they say, a point of view. Just not much of one. This idea of a society where sexism, racism and homophobia have been so comprehensively eradicated they don't even need to be tackled anymore doesn't have any connection with reality. And expressing nostalgia for the days 'when you could say whatever you wanted' is at best misguided and in many cases mischievous.

When a banana skin was thrown at Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang as the player took a penalty for Arsenal against Spurs it was a chilling reminder of a time when this kind of thing routinely happened to black players.

Back in that halcyon era 'being able to say whatever you wanted' included being able to join your fellow supporters in performing monkey chants when a black player got the ball. You could hear it on Match of the Day. I saw it at first hand, aimed at Derry City's Nelson Da Silva and Owen Da Gama when they played in The Showgrounds in Sligo.

Things have improved but incidents like the one at the Emirates show there's no room for complacency. The anti-discrimination football body Kick It Out says that racist incidents at grounds are on the rise. "That banana was not some kind of message from the 1970s, it very much belongs to the climate we live in today," says the organisation's chairman Herman Ouseley.

Soccer has a remarkable propensity for generating the kind of hateful incidents which are rare in other sports. A quick glance at last week's papers tells us that Manchester United are being forced to put up netting to protect supporters in their disabled section who have been hit by smoke bombs, coins and urine-filled bottles thrown by visiting fans.

Meanwhile 11 men, ranging in ages from 18 to 61, were arrested following violent scenes during a match between Port Vale and Stoke City in the Checkatrade Trophy (No, me neither.) Stoke fans broke seats, toilets and windows in the away section at Vale Park. Well, it was The Potteries derby after all.

The Beautiful Game attracts The Ugliest Fans. We constantly see behaviour at grounds and on social media which would seem abnormal in any other walk of life but is seen as just another part of football's rich tapestry. There's an idea that soccer is a place where all old style macho behaviour denotes a kind of working class authenticity.

This idea of soccer as the last redoubt of your traditional manliness probably accounted for Martin Solveig's lamentable behaviour at the Ballon d'Or awards. As the world and her husband knows by now the host asked the winner of the women's award Ada Hegerberg if she knew how to twerk. For the high court judges among you, the twerk is a dance which involves shaking your arse like a hen about to lay an egg.

The 'sure it was only a joke' defence doesn't really cut it here. This was an historic moment because it was the first time a women's Ballon d'Or had been awarded. Yet Solveig's comment essentially belittled Hegerberg's achievement. The 23-year-old Norwegian striker won the Champions League this year with Lyon, scoring a record 15 goals in the process. She's scored 120 goals in 95 games for Lyon and 38 in 66 internationals for Norway.

There's a magnificent YouTube video of her in action which looks like a study of all the different ways goals can be scored. Hegerberg drives a shot into the top corner from 30 yards, drives one into the bottom corner from 20, soars high to thump a header past the goalkeeper from the centre of the box, dives to score at the far post, flicks one in at the near post, takes the ball on from half-way to score, stabs home a rebound, rounds a couple of defenders, gets between a couple of defenders, scores on the volley, on the half-volley, on the run.

She has the abilities common to all great goalscorers of apparently anticipating what is going to happen next, of finding space and of utter economy of effort, never taking two touches inside the box when one will do. The award was an opportunity for a world audience to pay attention to this wonderful player but instead the focus has been on Solveig's comments.

I'd be surprised to see an award to a sportswoman of any stripe in this country being accompanied by such guff. You'd hope we have more sense. Because what the controversy does show is that 'Political Incorrectness' often just involves someone not having the manners to avoid behaving like a pig.

The appropriately named Wally Downes also fancies himself as a bit of a comedian. Back in September he tweeted, "Oh yippee . . . Gay sex is now legal in India!!! I'm on my way next week, 1.4 billion all in . . . so 700 million fellas!!! And me being the first gay icon for LGBT footballing community . . . I'm gonna be swamped!!! #RainbowLacesTurbans." Now that Downes has been appointed manager of AFC Wimbledon the tweet has attracted a certain amount of attention.

Again, there'll be people who wonder what harm Downes did. But the idea that gay people are essentially laughable has a long and ignoble history. It's led to a situation where, as a survey by Dr John E Goldring of Manchester Metropolitan University has shown, 63 per cent of gay football fans have experienced homophobic chanting at matches. Huddersfield Town's fans, who were especially abusive against James McClean last season, have this season disgraced themselves again by aiming homophobic abuse at Brighton which was described as "pure evil" by those at the receiving end.

The Rainbow Laces campaign by the LGBT organisation Stonewall is an attempt to fight homophobia in sport. In mocking it Downes is giving comfort to those who'd prefer these things didn't happen. But as the recent assault on Gareth Thomas showed, homophobia has consequences. Jibes and slurs create a climate which emboldens people who physically attack those they regard as deviants or inferiors.

It's easy enough for a columnist to bang on about 'free speech' in an abstract way. But at a time when homophobic bullying still goes on in our schools I'd personally be more worried about the feelings of the kids targeted than about some middle-aged lad's notion that it's a sad day when you can't insult who you want.

Society is gradually progressing in the right direction. It was deeply moving to see the French rugby team display solidarity with Thomas by wearing rainbow laces. There are gay supporters' groups at many English football clubs with that of Spurs winning this year's Fans For Diversity Award. And over the past week Premier League clubs joined in the Rainbow Laces campaign.

On Wednesday night Watford turned a stand into a rainbow coloured mosaic before their game against Manchester City. This seemed particularly apt given the amount Elton John did for that club as chairman during their great years in the 1970s and '80s. After the rock star was outed by The Sun he suffered horrendous homophobic abuse at games. Who'd have thought then that in 2014 Watford would actually name one of their stands after him? It was, said Elton, one of the greatest days of his life.

That things are getting better is what really worries the bigots. When they say 'you can't say what you want anymore' what they really mean is that they can't go on with their old nonsense anymore without being challenged.

They have to be challenged. Because if they're not, we're going along with the idea that sport, and soccer in particular, doesn't have to move on with the rest of society.

Why would we ever want to do that?

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