Wednesday, February 01, 2012

When Two Tribes Go To War

As anyone who regularly attends English Premier League football matches will attest, the idea that in this prawn sandwich-munching, bring-the-wife-and-kids-for-a-family-day-out, multi-million pound fan "experience" era of the game, its nefarious side has been completely extinguished would be regarded as foolish.

No doubt, things are vastly improved, certainly from the days of my own youth, when standing in 'The Shed' of Stamford Bridge made owls out of inquisitive boys, as we rotated our heads fully through 180 degrees to see the newest outbreak of mayhem on the terracing behind us.

There is no doubt, too, that the orchestrated warfare that erupted with grim regularity in the '70s and early '80s between entire armies of clubs' fans - Millwall and West Ham, Chelsea and Tottenham, Arsenal and Leeds - has disappeared from the neighbouring streets of these clubs' grounds (although it would be the height of naïveté to suggest that it has disappeared altogether).

There is also no doubt that in recent weeks the word "tribal" has crept back into the football writers' lexicon as the supposed 'race rows' between Liverpool's Luis Suarez and Manchester United's Patrice Evra, and Chelsea's John Terry and Queens Park Rangers' Anton Ferdinand have been ratcheted up.

Tribal is not just an unfortunate word in the racial context, but entirely inappropriate in the actual context of what it is to be a football fan. I don't consider Chelsea or my fellow Chelsea fans any more of a tribe as any other group with whom I claim association - be it England supporters, owners of the complete recordings of Nick Drake, or corpulent male professionals in their mid-forties from the south-west suburbs of London.

However, fate, irony, some perversion or a combination of all three contrived to bring Liverpool and Manchester United, QPR and Chelsea together last Saturday for the FA Cup 4th Round's lunchtime kickoffs. Sports hacks couldn't believe their luck with the column inches they were gifted to stoke up the tension - and risk creating self-fulfilled prophesy. For things easily evolved from being about four football players, to being entire sets of supporters pitched against each other.

For a start, the North-West derby just didn't need it. Liverpool-Manchester United was already one of the longest running team rivalries in professional sport; Suarez from one side was serving his suspension, while Evra from the other had returned to his football. Unfortunately The Kop didn't receive the memo, and spent much of the game's rancourous 90-plus minutes barracking the Frenchman for being "a lying bastard", amongst other choice suggestions, for reporting Suarez to the FA, the result of which being the Uruguayan receiving an eight-game ban.

The Ferdinand-Terry affair, on the other hand, was still an open goal. Ever since the QPR-Chelsea league match on October 23rd when Terry is alleged to have made a racist slur against Ferdinand, the Chelsea and England captain has been allowed to play on by the FA, as they maintained the position that he was facing a public prosecution, rather than an FA disciplinary charge, as Suarez had.

I am sure that some legal expert somewhere will explain the significance of the two, different situations, but to me, the Crown Prosecution Service and the Metropolitan Police, in claiming to have sufficient evidence to charge Terry with a public order offense, did the FA a favour, as it allowed them to totally swerve the tricky issue of their national captain being accused of racism.

So, if Terry is found not guilty, he and the FA will simply go back to some form of normality, and if found guilty, his England career as captain and player would most probably be over. Responsibility well and truly offloaded.

Unfortunately, things were ballsed up - quite literally - by QPR drawing Chelsea in the FA Cup 4th round, in a tie to be played just days before Terry's case opens, today, at Westminster Magistrates Court. No doubt under the most hawkish of legal advice, nothing official had been heard from either player or club on the matter since Terry was charged - until it was revealed, on the eve of the cup tie, that Ferdinand had received in the post a "malicious communication" (which, according to different reports, contained either an air gun pellet, a bullet or a shotgun cartridge).

Naturally, the package lacked a return address, but the nods and winks were already heading the way of Chelsea fans amid suggestions that some form of highly misguided  support for Terry had been enacted. Internet discussions sprang to life and Chelsea's historic - and unwanted association - with far-right groups became a convenient charcoal brick with which to warm up the barbecue further.

Thankfully the Ferdinand mailbag became a sideshow to the less injurious topic of "Will they? Won't they?" and whether Ferdinand would shake Terry's hand in the somewhat ridiculous pre-kickoff 'Respect' handshake ritual between the two teams.

In this the ever-reliable "friends close to the star" suggested that Ferdinand would blank Terry (which would not be a first for the defender - Wayne Bridge came close to the old thumb-to-nose finger waggle gag when he confronted Terry on the pitch for the first time after it was revealed he'd been enjoying relations with Bridge's then-fiancée).

Shortly before kickoff on Saturday it was reported that there would be no team handshake at all. It was explained that they didn't want to risk a handshake snub towards Terry prejudicing the court case about to open today. In truth, the QPR players had decided as a team on Friday to blank Terry, causing a cataclysmic humiliation for the Chelsea and England skipper, and the FA itself.

The only thing this messy piece of PR really prejudiced was the ability of football to stand up above racism itself. Whether Terry did call Ferdinand a "f****** black c***" or not is now for a court to decide. The fact is that Ferdinand and his teammates could have shown themselves to be bigger indivduals by accepting Terry's handshake and moving on. They may have believed it was supporting the cause, but instead it would only have prolonged and provoked things further.

And there lies the biggest issue of all. If you go looking for a rift you'll find one and make it larger, and racism and tribalism are two causes football could do without. If Terry did use such a slur, he's an idiot and should be punished. We all know that many players are blighted by a red mist that descends in the heat of battle. It is debatable as to whether Terry's alleged epithet, uttered in a high-pressure London derby his team were losing, makes him a congenital racist. Stupid, but not malevolently racist.

He is , however, a role model, a senior player and his club and country's captain. In both jobs, he works every day in multi-cultural squads, being a high-profile ambassador for the FA's Respect and the 'Racism - Kick It Out' campaigns. He needs to command the utmost respect from the players he spends most of his week in the company of. And he should have remembered that before opening his mouth in a game monitored by 13 high definition television cameras, unprecedented online scrutiny and the video pinboard that is YouTube.

In no way do I endorse racism or the use of language that draws malicious attention to someone's racial origin, physical appearance, sexual preference or any other tag.

Football is strange theatre. I doubt any, or at least many, of the fans who chant "Yiddo" towards Spurs supporters are card-carrying Nazis, or even know the significance of the slur. And while I've always baulked at the despicable song that refers to Auschwitz, one is wearily resigned to the fact that most members of this chorus line are morons braying with their fellow terrace sheep in complete ignorance of true anti-semitism, and certainly the full, sordid and abhorrent ugliness that was the Holocaust.

The Evra/Suarez and Ferdinand/Terry spats are no more than that - spats. What we have to avoid is the creeping return to English football of the Neanderthal monkey chants that are still projected towards black players from the terraces and stands of football grounds in Spain, Serbia, Poland and Germany. As it is, an eagle-eyed smartphone owner caught sight of an idiot at Anfield on Saturday impersonating King Louis. This shouldn't be allowed to be a return to the disgraceful banana-throwing days of the 70s, when the likes of Luther Blissett, the young John Barnes and Chelsea's heroic pioneering black debutant Paul Canoville ran a gauntlet of hate and ignorance from their own supporters.

I like to think that football has moved on and, for the most part, it has. Supporters might still mockingly draw attention to Liverpool fans' employment status, to Arséne Wenger apparently lacking both a plan and money, and to Ashley Cole having the temerity to cheat on the nation's unoffical sweetheart, Cheryl Cole (God help him if it was Susan Boyle), but this is no more than mild joshing, baiting to get a rise out of the opposition rather than any declaration of war.

Football really isn't a matter of life and death. It's a game. You scream your lungs out at your own midfield, the myopic referee or the small contingent of noisy away fans (who will give as good as they get), all in the name of giving a match some atmosphere. Within this pantomime will be some of the funniest songs, the sharpest wit and the most cutting of self-depreciation. Left to itself, it's harmless. It just doesn't need journalists to turn it into something else, as we all know that friendly abuse can quickly become something decidedly unfriendly.

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