Football's silent majority must set the tone, not the bigots who just want to be noticed
02:00 GMT, 2 December 2012
It was a tacky little sign, white
paint smeared on a blue banner, and it said: ‘Welcome to the circus,
starring Fat Rafa as the new clown.’ The letters were slightly smudged
and the ‘n’ of ‘clown’ was squashed against the banner’s edge, as if it
were an afterthought. But the man holding it up seemed strangely proud
of his creation. For the cameras were taking his picture and all was
well with his world.
Other placards sprouted around
Stamford Bridge to greet Rafael Benitez, their new manager. ‘Rafa Out!’ …
‘In Rafa we will never trust’ … ‘Rafa Benitez: Chelsea Fans Do Not
Forget’. The last referred to a trifling slur which the rest of the
world had long since forgotten.
But even as we sniggered, we realised that they had been noticed and thus their object had been achieved.
Spelling it out: Chelsea fans protest before Rafa Benitez's first game in charge
Rejecting a Chelsea manager even
before he started his job was clearly absurd but the antics of the West
Ham fans at Tottenham last weekend were darker and far more disturbing.
It is thankfully impossible to
comprehend the characters capable of screaming anti-Semitic insults,
chanting slogans about Adolf Hitler and making hissing allusions to gas
But that was the kind of trash which
passed for banter at White Hart Lane and witnesses insist that hundreds
of visiting supporters joined in. You must have read about it; it was in
all the papers.
The clowns and the choristers were at
it again yesterday at football grounds across the nation. And while
their excesses were reported, nobody seemed in the least surprised. It’s
‘tribal’, you see; a way of making a point and gaining attention.
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It’s the sort of thing that they do,
because they see themselves as being part of the action. And many of us
find that genuinely disturbing.
Some time ago, I wrote a book which
considered the various ways in which fans follow their chosen sport.
Some are largely silent, as in golf or snooker. Others, such as horse
racing and speedway, are loud, passionate but distant observers. At the
big tennis tournaments they make their noise only when play is
interrupted, while at cricket Test matches the crowd have grown louder
down the years but remain essentially respectful of the nature of the
And all of them — save, perhaps, the
dreary grotesques of cricket’s ‘Barmy Army’ — recognise the convention
by which the watchers watch and the performers perform.
Dreary grotesques: The Barmy Army in Sydney
True, there was a time, a few years back, when the distinction grew blurred and some of our major sports were interrupted by streakers. But they were happily eliminated, first by the certainty of arrest, then, far more effectively, by television’s admirable decision to turn its cameras away from their tedious caperings. The ancient truth was reasserted: nobody ever bought a ticket to look at the audience.
As the past week’s events have demonstrated, only football still struggles with that simple concept. Having paid extortionate prices for their seats — which they rarely occupy, since mob culture insists on mass standing — football fans demand a share of the spotlight. Obscene gestures, vile chants, abusive placards; anything goes, anything likely to get them noticed.
For those who truly want to cause spectacular offence, football offers an irresistible stage.
Abuse: West Ham fans taunted their Spurs counterparts at White Hart Lane
Thankfully, it remains true that the decent majority are deeply disturbed by the squalid excesses of the minority. And there are broad and hopeful shafts of light. Yesterday, at Millwall’s Den, the local South London derby with Charlton was played on ‘Jimmy’s Day’, an occasion which marked the murder four years ago of a blameless young fan named Jimmy Mizen.
In the years since Jimmy’s death, his parents have dedicated themselves to combating violence and raising the aspirations of young people and yesterday they joined with Millwall’s outstanding Community Scheme to celebrate the advances achieved. So we should not doubt that football can be a genuine force for good.
But too often it sells itself short. Too often it allows its tone to be set by chanting morons, or hissing bigots, or misguided enthusiasts with misplaced pride in their crudely painted placards; all demanding to be noticed. We cannot say with confidence that they would go away if we denied them the attention they seek. But it might be worth the effort.
Flintoff’s fight night is just a bushtucker trial in boxing gloves
His ring walk was fine, his glare was ferocious and he answered the opening bell with the urgency of a seasoned pro. It was then that things started to go wrong for Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff in the Manchester Arena.
Nobody ever doubted his heart or his spirit, since they are his stock in trade. No, his fistic limitations lay elsewhere, in the areas of timing, technique, footwork and strategy. And when a man enters the professional ring lacking all of those basic assets, then we know that we are watching not a genuine contest but a reality TV stunt; a bushtucker trial in boxing gloves.
In fairness, the matchmakers had done their work well. Richard Dawson was what boxing calls ‘a body’. Whereas Freddie was said to have spent the past four months in the gym, Dawson seemed to have passed his time in the Oklahoma branch of Dunkin’ Donuts.
He was two stones heavier than our hero and much of that poundage hung from his waist.
Stunt: Andrew Flintoff won his ring debut
Yet still he threw the only authentic punch of the four brief rounds, a short left hook that took Flintoff off his feet for a few confusing moments in round two. As for Freddie, well, he tried his heart out because that is his nature. He flapped and he flailed, threw frantic punches from the elbow, like a man trying to swat an elusive fly. Yet nothing came naturally to him, since it isn’t his sport. Imagine Mike Tyson attempting a cover drive and you have the picture.
The television commentator, painfully anxious to create a sense of occasion, made much of the minor celebrities at ringside; all ‘good mates’ of Freddie, it seems.
And when the fight was done and Freddie had won — as we rather suspected he would — those good mates celebrated euphorically, as if a world title had been delivered.
Victorious: Flintoff celebrates a win over Richard Dawson
David Price, the British heavyweight champion and a sensible chap, was asked for his view. ‘It was what it was,’ he said, benignly. ‘You can’t take it too seriously.’
Indeed you can’t, which is why Freddie Flintoff’s boxing career is likely to prove brief, trite and utterly forgettable. Such is the way of reality TV.
England’s leading football clubs paid out more than 77million to agents in the 12 months to September 2012.
That’s 77m the sport will never see again, handed over for no good reason to people of no obvious talent for performing no useful function.
It is a scandal which screams out for investigation.
But nothing will happen, since the consequences would prove uncomfortable.
Still, the Premier League remains the greatest league in all the world. Don’t believe me, ask a football agent.