Sport

Football highs and lows of 2013

The bad news is that football is increasingly ban-happy. The good news is that fans are fighting back.

Football isn’t just a sporting contest. These days it is increasingly a moral and cultural battleground. These are my highlights and lowlights of football’s culture wars over the past 12 months.

Low lights

Absurd moral outrages. Sometimes I think there are two parallel universes: one inhabited by the frothing, moralistic buffoons who phone BBC Five Live’s 606 or TalkSPORT to fulminate about outrageous on-pitch incidents, and a parallel reality in which the rest of us find these incidents side-splittingly hilarious. Call me morally reprehensible, but some of us would pay good money to see a Kuwaiti referee punch a player, Eden Hazard getting sent off for kicking a ballboy or, most sensationally of all, Luis Suárez getting a 10-match ban for chomping on Branislav Ivanovic’s arm. Suárez’s naughty nibble wasn’t an act of cannibalism – it was comedy gold. Keep on biting, Luis, keep on biting.

Contrived atmosphere. For years I have railed against the dead hand of sanitisation, which is suffocating the passionate, anarchic creativity of terrace culture and replacing it with an anodyne, family-friendly watered-down monoculture. My heart sinks when I see a grown man wearing a jester’s hat or a horrendous half-and-half scarf. A toe-curlingly risible example of this trend was Brighton’s decision to distribute cardboard clappers – complete with song lyrics – to their fans in the Championship play-off semi-final against Crystal Palace. ‘We clap with our hands’, taunted the Palace fans. Brighton boss Gus Poyet, however, was incandescent. ‘It was an extremely silly idea and the result was an annoying noise’, fumed the Albion manager in a leaked email.

Another particular bugbear of mine is piped music. As much as I enjoyed Palace’s glorious play-off final victory, the day was somewhat tarnished by the deafening dance music pounding out over the Wembley PA system. Palace fans were more than capable of making a lot of noise, but our attempts to celebrate with our own songs were drowned out by the ear-splitting cacophony of Florence and the Machine. Surely it’s time to pull the plug on piped music.

You can’t say that. Since spiked was launched back in 2001, I’ve chronicled the steady encroachment into football of the stifling ‘You can’t say that’ culture. Football used to be a carnival of glorious vulgarity where grown men went to trade insults with other consenting adults. But now everyone has to mind their language – fans, players and backroom staff. In July, Liverpool FC published a handbook for staff which included a list of ‘offensive’ and ‘unacceptable’ words and phrases. You can now find yourself in trouble at Anfield for using phrases like ‘man up’, ‘don’t be a woman’ and ‘lady boy’.

A recurring theme in 2013 was that the purge of inappropriate language took no account of intent or context. Players, managers and fans are all liable to be reprimanded for words or gestures which are not intentionally insulting but are perceived to be inappropriate, usually by professional offence-seekers like the Society of Black Lawyers. Victims of this purge of evil words include Spurs fans, who have been threatened with prosecution for referring to themselves as ‘yids’ and England manager Roy Hodgson, who provoked an absurd shitstorm for innocently using the word ‘monkey’ in a half-time team talk.

The most ridiculous race row of 2013 must surely be the furore over a cryptic goal celebration by a black French footballer. Nicolas Anelka’s ‘quenelle’ gesture meant nothing to anyone in the stadium. It meant nothing to most football fans in England. Even in France, where this gesture has wider currency, the meaning is disputed. Anelka says it is ‘anti-system’ but the French sports minister says it’s anti-Semitic. If the English FA bows to shrill demands to punish Anelka, they really would show themselves up to be une bande de crétins.

Highlights

We’ll sing what we want. The campaign to stop Spurs fans singing ‘Yid Army’ illustrates the sad degeneration of anti-racism from a progressive cause to a reactionary demand for language policing. However, one of the highlights of last year was the defiant response of Spurs fans to this wrongheaded attempt to gag them. In September, the FA warned Spurs fans that they faced prosecution for using the Y-word. The immediate response by Spurs supporters was a defiant chant of ‘We’ll sing what we want’. Too right. ‘We’ll sing what we want’ should become the rallying cry for all fans against the killjoys who want to censor our songs.

Fans united. There are encouraging signs that football fans are starting to flex their collective muscle. There have been protests by fans of Manchester City and Crystal Palace over the rip-off ticket prices that away fans are frequently charged. The Football Supporters’ Federation has launched a Twenty’s Plenty campaign to encourage clubs to cap ticket prices at £20 for away fans.

For Cardiff and Hull fans, the main enemy is quite clearly at home. Hull City supporters have protested against owner Assem Allam’s proposal to change the club’s name to Hull Tigers. Cardiff fans had been similarly upset when cartoon villain Vincent Tan changed the club’s jersey from its traditional blue to red. In 2013, they were further incensed by Tan’s appalling treatment of manager Malky Mackay. Football supporters have also started to mobilise against so-called ‘bubble matches’, where the police impose draconian travel restrictions on away fans. In March, Millwall fans boycotted the away fixture at Leeds in protest at the bubble measures imposed on travelling supporters. In the same month, Hull City fans staged a demonstration against bubble restrictions on their away fixture at Huddersfield, despite the fact that there was no history of trouble between fans of the two clubs.

The kids are alright. In Italy, where regional identity often trumps national allegiance, the authorities have tried to outlaw ‘territorial discrimination’ (regionalist abuse). Fans face stadium bans for singing abusive songs about fans from other regions. When Juventus fans sang anti-Napoli songs, their ultras were banned from the stadium and their place taken by 12,200 school kids for the home game against Udinese. However, the Juventus youngsters are evidently cut from the same cloth as their foul-mouthed elders. Every time the Udinese keeper took a goal kick, the schoolkids swore at him. They screamed ‘Oooooh, merda’, which is the Italian equivalent of the great British tradition of shouting ‘You’re shit, aaaah!’ when the goalie takes a kick. It’s heartening to know that, in Italy at least, the future of terrace abuse is assured.

The right to be insulted. What the ‘You can’t say that’ brigade fails to understand is that the trading of terrace insults is just pantomime. The taunts are largely ironic. We don’t really believe that Scousers are hubcap thieves or that Welsh fans are sheep shaggers. It’s just banter. Equally, I very much doubt that anyone on the receiving end of these playground taunts is genuinely hurt. In Italy, the football authorities sadly fail to see the irony of these regional jibes. In October, AC Milan were ordered to play a match behind closed doors after their fans had sung a little ditty suggesting that Neapolitans were dirty, smelly cholera-victims. However, in a remarkable and heartwarming show of solidarity, the Napoli fans staged a protest demanding the right to be insulted. They chanted anti-Napoli insults and unfurled a banner proclaiming: ‘[We are] Naples cholera-sufferers. Now close our curva!’

Instead of ringing 606 to complain about offensive songs, British fans ought to follow the Napoli example. It’s time to grow a thick skin and stand up for the right to be offensive.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside.

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