The insulting Tube and the insulted footballer

A train network that changed the world and a sensitive footballer who wants to change football fans.

Hero: the London Underground

On 10 January 1863, a combination of technological and engineering prowess and sheer bloody-mindedness bore a remarkable fruit. For the first time in history, a steam train was running (mostly) beneath the earth’s surface. On this, its first day of operation, this ‘train in a drain’ carried 40,000 passengers in total, between London’s Paddington and Farringdon stations.

Not that everyone was impressed. As a Times editorial said: ‘It seemed an insult to common sense to suppose that people who could travel as cheaply on the outside of a Paddington bus would prefer, as a merely quicker medium, to be driven amid palpable darkness through the foul subsoil of London.’

And in a way The Times had it about right. This was an ‘insult to common sense’. The idea of transporting people underground using steam engines, which had only recently started carrying passengers overground, was incredible. In its audacity, its leaping ahead of what had hitherto been deemed possible, an underground train network did seem an affront to common sense. Which was precisely why that moment 150 years ago, when the London Underground finally saw the murk of day, is to be celebrated: at its inception, the Tube was a testament to human ingenuity. 

Since the 1860s, the Underground has of course expanded massively, transforming London in the process. Semi-rural villages such as Hammersmith have been brought close and built up. Workers once confined, as the original Underground advocate Charles Pearson put it, to ‘their pestilent abodes’ in the ‘overcrowded’ centre were able to live in greater comfort further out. Indeed, even now the incredible ability of London’s Underground to compress time and space is underwritten by its status as the third-largest metro system in the world (after the Beijing Subway and the Shanghai Metro).

Yet, much of the Tube’s glory belongs to the past. Many of the lines, from the rival Circle and District lines, which were both up and running by the 1870s, to the later Central, Piccadilly and Bakerloo lines, had all been opened by the 1930s. This was also the period when, under the partial stewardship of Frank Pick of Underground Electric Railways Limited, the Tube acquired its distinctive iconography from the ‘roundel’ insignia to the commissioned art emblazoned on station and train alike. It is notable that since its early twentieth-century heyday, only two more lines have been built – the Victoria (1968) and the Jubilee (1979, expanded in 1999).

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So, in the January gloom, it’s worth raising a glass of something warming to the ambition and vision that 150 years ago to this very day transformed a city. Yet, given the dire state of transport in the UK, it is time perhaps for someone to insult common sense once again.

Zero: Kevin-Prince Boateng

Remember the name: Kevin-Prince Boateng.

For many football fans, Boateng was already remembered as a slightly flash footballer who never quite made it at slightly flash Tottenham Hotspur. Then, despite not being good enough to displace the heft of Tom Huddlestone in Spurs’ midfield, Boateng turned out to be good enough to play for Germany and AC Milan. Strange, but true. But it is only now that Boateng has finally arrived. He is now a hero, an icon, a footballer whose achievement will be talked of for decades.

And what did he do? Crash home the winning goal in a Milan derby? Single-handedly seize hold of AC’s faltering league campaign? Win something? No. During a friendly against fourth division side Pro Patria, Boateng became increasingly annoyed by some racist abuse from a tiny section of Pro Patria’s 5,000 fans. In response, he proceeded to kick the ball hard into the stands and walk off the pitch, followed by his teammates. That’s it. That was his achievement.

Not that you’d have guessed it was so insignificant given the praise that has been coming Boateng’s way. The Telegraph‘s Henry Winter saw it as a ‘brave protest’ against the ‘lingering scourge of racism in the twenty-first century’. In the Guardian, Amy Lawrence praised Boateng’s ‘brave and eloquent message in football’s attempt to stem the poisonous undercurrent of racism’. The London Evening Standard‘s Patrick Barclay went further, likening Boateng – and I kid you not – to civil-rights campaigner Martin Luther King. ‘History might yet judge [Boateng] as among the most significant figures of contemporary football’, wept Barclay.

Yet was it really so ‘brave’, ‘courageous’ or ‘heroic’ – to use just some of the valorising adjectives coming Boateng’s way – to walk off the pitch because some opposition fans were shouting rude and obnoxious things at you? This was a football stadium, after all. Might it not in fact have been braver and more courageous to stick around on the pitch and ram the taunts back down the braying fans’ throats through the medium of football? And was it not also a pretty easy gesture to make in the context of a friendly against a minuscule football team in northern Italy? If Boateng had sacrificed his team’s result in a crucial Serie A match because he didn’t like some terrace taunts, then that might have been considerably more courageous (and stupid). Not least because he’d have to put up with the ire of his own fans, too.

But more importantly, by getting so wound up by offensive football chants, Boateng has provided yet further grist to the anti-football-fan mill. He has clearly affirmed what too many right-thinking pundits assume: that racism is a deep-seated problem among the type of people who watch football and that they need to be re-educated.

Some perspective is needed. Boateng is neither a hero nor the second coming of Martin Luther King. And likewise, racism is not the lingering scourge of today’s football stadiums. 

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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