Trading insults is what football is all about. Well, goals too, but you know what I mean. Part of the fun of going to football is the abusive chanting. Witty, cruel, irreverent, obscene and occasionally downright tasteless. But are there some chants that cross the threshold of decency?
The recent Carling Cup tie between Leeds and Manchester United has led to calls for an end to certain tasteless chants. I’m talking about Leeds fans singing the infamous ‘Runway Song’ which mocks the tragic 1958 Munich plane crash. ‘Who’s that dying on the runway, who’s that dying in the snow?’ the song goes. United fans, for their part, goaded their opponents by chanting ‘Always look out for Turks carrying knives’ and unfurling an ‘Istanbul’ banner – a reference to the fatal stabbing of two Leeds supporters in Turkey 11 years ago.
This week a YouTube video clip featuring a four-year-old on a scooter singing the Munich song caused a rather predictable furore. ‘Sickening! Busby family outrage at boy of four being taught vile Munich song’, thundered the Daily Mail, who brought the video to the attention of Sandy Busby, the late United manager’s son who, understandably, was outraged. ‘This is a sick and sad situation. It’s unbelievable to think that a four-year-old boy would be taught the words of this disgusting song. I have seen it all now’, said Busby. There has been widespread condemnation of Munich chants from leading figures in the game. ‘There is no room in football for chants that are in poor taste in any way, shape or form’, said Liverpool boss Kenny Dalglish. ‘Personally, I think there is a line that should not been crossed by either set of fans’, said Sunderland manager Steve Bruce.
Munich chants are, without a doubt, extremely offensive. But what’s the point of insults that don’t hurt? The Munich disaster is sacred to United fans. The plane crash, in which 23 people lost their lives, is integral to the club’s identity. And it’s precisely because Munich is so sacred that mocking the tragedy is such a sacrilege. In an era when sex is no longer taboo and organised religion is on the wane, traditional profanities have lost their capacity to offend. But the Munich chant still touches a raw nerve in the red half of Manchester. It is genuinely shocking. That’s why United’s fiercest rivals still chant the Runway song, make aeroplane gestures and refer to United as the ‘Munichs’.
I’m not condoning these chants. They are, without a doubt, tasteless, insulting and utterly childish. What concerns me about the current discussion about sick chanting, however, is that it invariably invites greater scrutiny and regulation of fan conduct. The Football Offences Act 1991 prohibits ‘indecent or racialist’ chanting at football matches. This provision has predominantly been used against the relatively rare instances of racist chanting and has been used rarely to punish fans for indecent chanting. However, two years ago, a number of Spurs fans were prosecuted for directing indecent chants at Sol Campbell (‘We don’t give a fuck if you’re hanging from a tree, you’re a Judas cunt with HIV’). These prosecutions set a dangerous precedent as the term ‘indecent’ is open to wide interpretation.