Did they expect fans to boo Muamba for diving?
Behind the united sympathy for Fabrice Muamba, reactions to his ordeal reveal that bigotry about football fans did not end with Hillsborough.
When Bolton football player Fabrice Muamba collapsed on the Tottenham pitch on Saturday evening, suffering an apparent cardiac arrest, the legal authorities went into action almost as quickly as the impressive medical team.
A drunk and possibly braindead Welsh student who mocked Muamba on Twitter was not only condemned by fellow tweeters but, after he responded with some choice racist abuse, found himself reported to the law. Within hours he had been hunted down by police and whisked into court. By Monday magistrates had convicted him of incitement to racial hatred and told him he faces a prison sentence. Swansea University is reviewing his future after students reportedly started a campaign to have him kicked off his biology course.
It seems that a bad-taste, alcohol-inspired ‘joke’ can now get you rushed into jail and out of higher education almost before your tweets touch the ground. Such is the febrile atmosphere created by a combination of mass sympathy for Muamba and official distaste for offensive antics around football. You don’t have to enjoy racist rants to think this might be a Twitterstorm too far.
As it happens, that idiotic undergraduate is not the only one to have revealed his prejudices in response to the terrible experience of Fabrice Muamba. Many of those in authority and the media expressing nothing but goodwill towards the stricken player also unwittingly let slip their true feelings about football and fans.
Why, for example, did so many observers feel moved to congratulate the Bolton and especially Spurs supporters for their ‘dignified’ and ‘civilised’ response, after the crowd spontaneously came together to sing Muamba’s name and then quietly left the stadium as the match was abandoned? Only because the authorities and much of the media now consider the mass of football fans to be such lowlife scum that they were shocked to discover the crowd showing such humanity.
The mind boggles at what these people must have expected the Spurs supporters to do as Muamba collapsed and the medical team rushed in to try to revive him. Did they think that the fans would accuse him of diving? Or perhaps throw bananas on to the pitch? Boo off the stretcher-bearers? Or invade the pitch and turn the defibrillator on referee Howard Webb for daring to abandon the game?
The patronising commendations for the players’ and fans’ normal human response to an unfolding tragedy reveal the underlying contemptuous view that many have of footballers and supporters today. Indeed on that same day, the Guardian had run an article by its chief football writer criticising football’s ‘chorus of the damned’ – the songs that some fans sometimes sing about a death associated with a rival club. Citing a couple of recent examples, he claimed that ‘it’s getting worse, or at least it can feel that way’ – facts and feelings, it’s all the same, isn’t it? – and demanded that ‘a line must be drawn’. He didn’t specify whether the police or perhaps the Guardian should be tasked with drawing the line between the decent and the indecent at football. If they seriously see football crowds as a ‘chorus of the damned’, it is little wonder that so many were pleasantly surprised to hear Spurs fans singing in Muamba’s support.
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In a striking coincidence, the discussion around the public reaction to Muamba’s plight comes at the same time as the leaked revelations about how senior Merseyside police officers told Margaret Thatcher’s government that drunken Liverpool fans were to blame for the 1989 Hillsborough disaster. This will hardly be news to anybody who has followed the Hillsborough saga with their eyes open, but confirmation that it was police chiefs who fed the Tories and the Sun those lies has sparked widespread outrage. Far fewer seem willing to admit that there is still a powerful strain of bigotry about football fans, albeit expressed in twenty-first-century language. So instead of being accused of robbing corpses and pissing on rescuers, fans today are merely treated as members of a racist, homophobic, anti-social death cult and told to behave as if they were at a supper club rather than one of the football variety.
In this respect, it was telling to hear another common response to the outpouring of public sympathy for Muamba. ‘After all the problems we have had in football lately’, various authorities and experts pronounced, meaning the controversies surrounding the Luis Suarez and John Terry race cases, ‘this is showcasing the football family at its best’.
In fact it would be truer to say that the hysteria over alleged racism and homophobia among fans and players, and the celebration of the unity behind Muamba, are two sides of the same coin. They are alternative faces of the way that the game has been turned into a moral football by those seeking to exploit it for political purposes.
On one hand, a football tragedy such as the ordeal of Muamba, and before him the death of Gary Speed, offers a rare opportunity to promote the image of a nation united in mourning or prayer; the BBC has even speculated on whether the publicised pleas to pray for the God-fearing Muamba might be a sign of a spiritual revival. Promoting such a message of unity involves enforcing a code of Emotional Correctness, where everybody repeats the same prayer over and over, from the TV news and radio phone-ins to Twitter. Woe betide anybody, such as that drunk Swansea student, who deviates from the line.
On the other hand, the authorities will also exploit football to enforce a moral divide in society, to ‘draw a line’ between respectable folk and the ‘chorus of the damned’ who turn the beautiful game ugly. They are trying to use football to teach the unruly mob a lesson about how to behave. In Scotland, the new Offensive Behaviour at Football Act makes it explicit that football fans are no longer equal with others before the law, since they can be arrested and convicted of ‘offences’ – such as singing on a train – which would not be illegal for anybody else. As Times football editor Tony Evans pointed out in an excellent column on Monday, there is no shortage of laws in England aimed specifically at football fans either, from football banning orders to public-order measures. If there is indeed a national ‘football family’ uniting us all around the game, it seems odd that many of its members are treated as second-class cousins.
One other point. Liverpool manager Bill Shankly might famously have observed that football is not a matter of life and death, ‘it’s much more important than that’ – but as Tony Evans also pointed out, he didn’t mean it: ‘It started off as a throwaway joke and became a party piece to shock and delight in equal measure.’ Football fans, too, know the difference between a ‘life-and-death’ football match and a genuine struggle between those two states, as their response to Muamba’s collapse graphically showed.
Some authorities and observers, however, do appear to have lost sight of the distinction between ‘soccer’ and society. In recent years they have overinflated the importance of football as a substitute to try to fill the gap where our society’s public and political life ought to be. Then, after Muamba’s collapse at White Hart Lane, many pundits and tweeters felt obliged to declare, in a pious voice, that the tragedy had put football ‘in perspective’ and made the sport seem ‘irrelevant’. Sorry, but if it takes a super-fit young footballer having a cardiac arrest during a televised match to remind you that football is really not ‘more important than life and death’, then you ought to get out of the press box and off Twitter more often, and get a life.
Of course football is ‘irrelevant’ to real life and its trials and tribulations. That is why we love the game, and what actually makes it important. Football can lift us out of ourselves and take us away from our troubles for a few hours. (Shakespeare can have a similar effect if you like that sort of thing.) Football is a glorious irrelevancy, the most magnificent waste of time that the human imagination has yet invented. So when real life suddenly intrudes on the pitch, as it did so brutally with Muamba’s collapse, it seems even more shocking than in an everyday situation. We can only hope that he recovers, and that football gets back to unreality as soon as possible.
Football fans have indeed shown their humanity in their support for Muamba. But they also act as passionate, morally autonomous humans when they behave around football in ways that others may not find ‘dignified’ or ‘civilised’. Long may it continue.
Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large. His new book There is No Such Thing as a Free Press… And We Need One More Than Ever will be published by Imprint Academic this Autumn. (Pre-order this book from Amazon(UK).)