Football should not let irresponsible few tarnish its civil majority

Simon Burnton on 10 February 2019

Perhaps the most depressing thing about reports that some Southampton fans had been filmed making aeroplane gestures at Cardiff players in reference to the tragic death of Emiliano Sala was that they were hardly surprising. There seems to have been a constant trickle of similar stories this season: violence after Watford’s game against Everton; Islamophobic abuse of Mohamed Salah at West Ham; homophobic abuse of Sol Campbell at Cheltenham; Chelsea fans abusing Raheem Sterling; a banana on the pitch in the north London derby, and more it seems on a weekly basis.

Last December the Premier League released a statement reacting to “incidents recently where a very small minority have behaved unacceptably” and implored supporters to “get behind their teams in passionate, positive and respectful ways”.

Their call has not been universally heeded. “The number and frequency of recent incidents is quite alarming,” said Piara Powar, the executive director of the Football against Racism in Europe network, last week. “I also think it points to the divisions that have opened up in the UK since Brexit. Some fans think they have licence to express publicly what they think privately.”

This may be true and certainly there were moments during the Brexit campaign when racism and xenophobia appeared to be actively encouraged. But there are a couple of issues to be raised, the most obvious being that abusive behaviour on football terraces predates Brexit by considerably more than a century.

Silas Hocking, the sadly widely forgotten author of a Victorian-era bestselling novel Her Benny, once gave a speech on the subject of football and its fans. “What was originally a pastime has become a business,” he said, that “reeks with every kind of abuse and degradation”. Football had “degenerated into a huge piece of gambling mechanism”, a game “in which the worst passions are engendered” among “crowds as a whole of doubtful respectability”. “We have all,” he noted, “got something of the savage in us.” It was April 1893.

Since the Brexit vote some people may indeed feel emboldened to behave in a manner previously considered unacceptable but, however many stories we have seen this season, there do not appear to be lots of them. Two Southampton fans were seen making plane gestures on Saturday; Chelsea suspended four fans over the abuse of Raheem Sterling; West Ham have identified the solitary supporter heard shouting Islamophobic abuse at Salah; one Spurs fan was fined and banned for throwing a banana at Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in December. For all the headlines these incidents generated, they remain the actions of eight people at four matches whose combined attendance was 191,885.

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It is important the repercussions of such behaviour are known to be swift and painful. Colin Wing, one of the Chelsea fans who abused Sterling at Stamford Bridge, told the media about how as a consequence of that incident and the publicity it attracted he had lost his job and his season ticket. But it is also important not to exaggerate them and for all the negative headlines there is still much to celebrate in British football culture.

Many thousands of match-goers will never have witnessed an incident of racial abuse. In the week after Sala’s disappearance a “moment of silent reflection” was held before all top-flight matches, impeccably observed as such occasions almost always are.

With these stories coinciding with the rancour that preceded and followed the Brexit vote, some might conclude the rules of basic, shared decency that hold our society together are being forgotten. However, I suspect most fans would report that even at football, where such ties are strenuously and repeatedly tested by the use of 22 men, a ball and an arbiter of questionable competence to provoke the wildest of emotional extremes, they are holding up rather well.

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