Time to stop using other sports to attack football

I like Martin Samuel – he’s one of my favourite sports journalists, one of the few who can write sensibly and logically.

However, last week, he resorted to that tired old tactic of using another sport as a club to beat football with. He wrote:

Football’s hate mob can learn from rugby

Friday night in the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, was an education. The Six Nations match between Wales and England was supposed to be an outpouring of national hatred, a vivid rendering of pure hostility with old wounds reopened and salt added by the class war of a Conservative Government in a recession.

And it was lively, yes. Noisy and raucous and raw. Yet the greatest sound was inspired not by some peripheral distraction like a spiky newspaper article or a bit of previous history between the protagonists, but by the game.

Samuel continued by mentioning how fans sat together, there was no vitriol towards players (except Wilkinson being booed onto the pitch of course), and everyone got on famously.

(in football)….There is a reason every transfer now ends with several rounds of finger-pointing, claim and counter-claim. The people involved are scared and, believe it or not, they are scared of you.

They fear the backlash, the venom, the headlines, the pointing fingers, the contorted, angry faces. They want to off-load the blame before bother knocks at their door. That is why Andy Carroll announced he was pushed out of Newcastle, and the club argued he had agitated to leave. He did not want any trouble and neither did they.

Sadly, football is no longer a reasonable place. Any player that leaves is a traitor, no matter what the circumstances, and any board that sells should be sacked, no matter the worth of the transaction to the business. Players no longer celebrate goals against former clubs out of respect, as if at a funeral, and unbridled hatred is so widely accepted as the currency of a deal that otherwise intelligent observers discuss it in rational terms.

Increasingly, supporters are as defined by who they hate – teams, players, managers – as by loyalty to their team. We act as if it was always that way. It wasn’t. This is new. (Daily Mail)

Rugby is the “go-to” sport when showing what is wrong with football, especially when discussing the lack of respect to referees.  Now I agree, rugby can teach us something here. And fans sit together too, and it’s all rather jolly. Some sports do some things better than others at certain things, that will always be the case. But they also do things worse, and it is ridiculous in my opinion to compare any two sports, as they will always be a world apart from each other.

Rugby players may respect the referee, but they gouge, punch, fight, fail drug tests, fight in bars, gush fake blood and discredit the sport every bit as much as footballers – you probably just don’t hear about much of it. Frank Lampard hypothetically punching someone is much bigger news than a hypothetical Mike Tindall punching someone. I recall a bunch of rugby players being involved in a vicious bar fight a year or two ago – it barely made the newspapers. I only saw it when looking for the TV page.

I’m not trying to argue that the way players speak to referees is acceptable, or that football is perfect – it isn’t, it has its problems, and plenty of them. My point is, so do other sports – all of them. They may be different problems, but I doubt people write articles on rugby pointing out how football can be a shining example of how to do things the right way, so why should we accept the reverse?

In the same way rugby players are no saints much of the time, cricketers cheat, they tamper with balls, they get charged for match fixing, and occasionally they even argue with the umpire. The fans’ chants may be better-humoured, but are often just as vicious as anything you’ll hear from a football crowd. Off the field, plenty of the players have a colourful life that would equal that of your average sociable footballer. Cycling is awash with drugs, allegedly, athletes have repeatedly failed drug tests too, even snooker has been hit by match-fixing claims.

But most of Samuel’s ire was aimed at us, the fans. Yes, rugby fans can sit together with fans of the opposition. This is very agreeable and nice. Football fans do get would up during matches, to the point that most weeks I wonder how some sitting around me have avoided dropping dead of a heart attack. But I’ll be honest – though it sometimes crosses a line, I like the rivalry, I like the fact that I don’t sit with opposition fans. I have no desire to. I like the tribal nature of that rivalry, the songs, the low-level aggression.

So why do football fans get so worked-up more than anyone else? Dare I argue that football fans, on average, are more passionate than fans of other sports? That it means more? I don’t know, but it feels that way sometimes. Football is a global game, the biggest game of all, it creates decade-long feuds, it starts wars, it defines whole countries sometimes, it matters.

Samuel wrote of the England v Wales rugby match:

When the ball went into touch, the England player that collected it was not met by abuse or a volley of spittle, coins and mobile phones

He seems to suggest this happens all the time at football matches. It doesn’t. What’s more, he’s using the actions of an idiotic minority to tar us all.

Modern life and its system of world-wide, easy communication, message boards, twitter, facebook, text messaging and the like has undoubtedly ramped up the scrutiny of football, allowed a greater platform for moaning, whinging, criticism, anger, and even threats. But Samuel is naive if he thinks there aren’t rugby or cricket message boards where the same attacks are happening, or that there haven’t been contentious transfers in rugby that have divided teams and fans. But most of all, the tabloid press must take the blame too – they stoke up hatred as much as anyone. Ridiculing managers, reporting training ground scuffles and anything minor to try and stoke up controversy. They are the ones that report every comment uttered by a footballer anywhere in the world, they are the ones that misquote, stir, exaggerate and distort. They are the ones that allow agents to spread stories about their players in order to get them a move or a better deal. And people believe what they read. People will believe that players are all blinged-up buffoons who care only about money and orgies if they read about it enough. Maybe it’s time they eased off with the hatred and criticism too.