The variation in chants and heckles from Premier League grounds ranges from, as any fan knows, the mildly amusing to the hugely embarrassing; and as David James recently claimed that players are a lot more affected than many fans know we have to ask ourselves: have we let the level of abuse get out of hand? When people talk about the violence in football in the seventies and eighties they talk about it as though contemporary football is perfect. In twenty years time we may look back at today’s football and feel equally ashamed at some of the lesser derivatives of the sport. By that I mean the abuse from the fans, the chanting, the racism and the homophobia that still rears its ugly head.
Writing for The Guardian, David James said:
“People may be surprised to hear just how much the crowd affect players. From the reprehensible, such as the alleged racist abuse Tom Adeyemi suffered during the recent FA Cup tie at Anfield, to the bog standard, “you’re rubbish”, it has been a topic of conversation among players at every club I have played for.”
You only need look at Thierry Henry’s reaction after the Swansea game yesterday, when the Arsenal team were getting some stick from a section of the Arsenal fans, to see evidence of what James says. For a player who has had such a varied career and has survived incidents such as the handball against Ireland you would imagine that he would now be immune to such comments, apparently not though. Arsenal’s record goal scorer appeared incensed at the abuse from his own support; whilst that abuse was arguably warranted due to the lackadaisical performance Henry’s reaction does raise the other issue with negative chanting, which is that under no circumstances is it constructive.
There was an interesting interview by BBC Sport with Emmanuel Adebayor whilst he was at Real Madrid last year in which he talked about his time on the wrong side of chants from both Tottenham and Arsenal fans. His approach was philosophical in that he claimed to understand that, no matter how tailored the abuse seemed, it was never personal. With regards to the abuse he had received from Spurs fans in the Champions League quarter-final whilst playing for the Spanish giants he said:
“I was supposed to sign for Tottenham but everything went and Madrid came in. It is bad because people have to realise that we are footballers. Today we play for this club, tomorrow we may end up playing for them. So what about if I’m wearing Tottenham’s shirt tomorrow? As their player, are they going to encourage me or are they still going to sing that song?”
Arguably the only way for a player that has received as much ill-treatment as Adebayor has over the years to avoid a grave sense of disillusionment with football is to brush off incidents with opposing fans, but does that excuse it? Do we want footballers to be in a position where they have to convince themselves that fans don’t really believe what they sing? Fans argue that being thick skinned is just part of the job for footballers who are paid so highly, and effectively paid by the fans, but does that mean that being vocally offensive towards players you dislike is part of the ‘job’ of being a fan? To complain about poor performances or Judas-like actions from players is one thing but genuine abuse inspired by a misplaced sense of hatred is another. Just because fans pay for their tickets it doesn’t give them a carte blanche. If you disliked the food at a restaurant you might complain but you wouldn’t take out that dissatisfaction by telling you waiter or waitress that you had doubts as to the sexual health of their mother. It sounds ridiculous but that is the kind of ‘jibe’ that players like Adebayor and Sol Campbell have had to deal with.
David James talked about a match against West Ham whilst playing for Aston Villa, he said:
“Around that time I had been in a car accident where the other driver had died. The West Ham fans called me a ‘murderer’. It was the most sickening thing to listen to. Standing in goal that day I literally felt physically disgusted. To make banter out of such a thing deeply inappropriate for everyone involved, not least the family of the deceased. Ordinarily I would ignore any kind of taunts but in that instance I had to let my disapproval be known.”
Clearly the vast majority does not exhibit this kind of behaviour, but that does not mean that the ‘innocent’ fans do not have a role to play in combating the ‘guilty’ sections of fans. Fans chant what they think is socially acceptable. The problem is that in football grounds it appears that almost anything is socially acceptable. Fans will not stop singing those kinds of, frankly sick, chants just by it being condemned in the media. It needs to be the fan base as a whole that stamps that behaviour out. We cannot expect the authorities to be able to identify that kind of behaviour in such large crowds, nor can we expect silent and passive disapproval to stop this culture. Confronting wildly offensive, idiotic and bigoted fans might not seem an attractive prospect but you can bet that the biggest dissuading factor for such fans would be humiliation in front of their peers. If a fan starts singing a song that is then condemned by all those around them, they’ll think twice before doing it again. This behaviour cannot be stopped overnight, but fans can start preventing it today.
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