Offside, 20 September
Everybody in sport was horrified at the senseless carnage in the USA, but nobody seemed sure about the correct way to respond. To play or not to play?
Ever since the terrorist attack on the USA on 11 September, the world of sport has been agonising over whether sporting events should be cancelled.
On the same day that the world watched in disbelief as New York’s World Trade Centre was reduced to rubble, I was writing an article about a nation’s overreaction to a football match. Such is the inflated significance of football in a society that craves collective experiences that it takes a tragedy of this magnitude to put the game into perspective.
But while everybody involved in sport was horrified at the senseless carnage in the USA, nobody seemed sure about the correct way to respond. On the day of the attack all UEFA Champions League fixtures and English Worthington Cup ties went ahead. The next day UEFA had a change of heart and cancelled the rest of the week’s European games. On the weekend after the attack, most American sporting events were cancelled – but in Britain, while football fans observed a minute’s silence before every game, no matches were postponed.
The decision to proceed with the weekend’s football programme in Britain provoked a heated debate in sporting circles. Some argued that all sporting events should have been cancelled as a mark of respect to those who died. ‘How can a minute’s silence preceding an hour-and-a-half’s screaming of abuse at irrelevant footballers contesting a trivial game constitute “the paying of respects”?’, asked Will Buckley in the UK Observer (1). Manchester United’s Ryan Giggs echoed these sentiments: ‘I wonder about the wisdom of playing games right now because people’s minds aren’t focused on football – it has no real relevance or meaning when you look at the bigger picture.’ (2)
Others insisted that cancelling sporting events was tantamount to giving in to terrorism – with the BBC’s Rob Bonnett suggesting that, by going ahead with the Ryder Cup, ‘golf can play a small but symbolic part in affirming the two continents’ determination that terrorism shall not prevail’ (3). The UK Daily Mail’s Jeff Powell argued that football provided ‘the perfect opportunity for demonstrating to the shadowy forces of evil that sport, like life, goes on no matter how heinous the atrocity’ (4). (Suicide bombers must have been quaking in their boots as they watched the ITV highlights of Reading v West Ham in the Worthington Cup.)
It is only natural for people to be shocked and upset by the events in the USA. But our emotional reactions to such a terrible tragedy are a private matter, and should remain so. I do not want to be told how to respond or be required to take part in regimented mourning. I particularly resent it when sports journalists start lecturing us on what constitutes appropriate emotional conduct. Like the Independent on Sunday’s Andrew Longmore, who questioned whether ‘the full-scale brawl at Derby, the distasteful banishment of Roy Keane at Newcastle and the traditional nonsense on which football thrives’ was the ‘correct response to a tragedy’ (5).
Giving footballers black armbands is one thing, but expecting them to curb their aggression and competitiveness when trying to win a match is going too far.
Football is not more important than life or death, as legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly famously said. It is nothing more than a game which enables us, albeit briefly, to escape the daily grind. But it is precisely because football can help take our minds off our troubles for 90 minutes that it must be kept free from the clutches of the emotional police.
spiked-issues: Attack on USA
(1) Observer, 16 September 2001
(2) See the Football365website
(3) To play or not to play, BBC Online, 12 September 2001
(4) See the Soccernet website
(5) Games that should never have been, Andrew Longmore, Independent on Sunday, 16 September 2001
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