Offside, 2 February
The police are cracking down on badge-kissing celebrations.
As a rule, I don’t approve of badge kissing in football. It seems to me that the practice of badge kissing has grown in inverse proportion to the diminution of player loyalty. Consequently, whenever a footballer makes this exaggerated gesture of commitment, I can’t help but suspect infidelity.
However, there are badge-kissers and badge-kissers (and, I dare say, a fair few badger kissers too). Gary Neville’s provocative goal celebration after Manchester United’s last-minute winner against Liverpool was, I would submit, a prime example of Good Badge Kissing. While his team-mates celebrated in front of the Stretford End, Neville ran the length of the field, grabbed his badge and ‘did a Stuart Pearce’ in front of the visiting Liverpool fans.
Hold on, I hear you say, how can you tell the difference between good badge kissing and bad? Well, for starters, there was Alan Green’s apoplectic reaction on Radio 5 Live. I can’t recall Green’s rant verbatim but the edited highlights go something like this: ‘Gary Neville…captain of Manchester United… has run the length of the field…kissed his badge in front of the Liverpool fans…disgraceful.’ And according to the Alan Green Law of Sanctimony, whenever the BBC’s senior football commentator starts frothing self-righteously, you can be sure that the incident in question was relatively harmless and probably highly entertaining too.
Football rivalries thrive on passion and enmity so, as far as I’m concerned, it’s perfectly acceptable – obligatory even – for fans to taunt opposing players and it’s equally legitimate for players to respond with a finger over the lips, a hand cupped to the ear or even, a more elaborate Neville-style pelvis-grinding, badge-kissing goal celebration. ‘What are you meant to do? Smile sweetly and jog back to the halfway line?’ asked Neville. ‘Increasingly people seem to want their footballers to be whiter than white and there are calls for sanctions over every little incident. Do they want a game of robots?’ Love him or loathe him, you have to admit he’s got a point.
Gary Neville isn’t everybody’s favourite footballer. For a start, he plays for Manchester United, and that is never going to win him many friends in neutral places. But at Old Trafford he is adored, not for his footballing flair – he’s a solid, dependable right back – but because, just like the supporters, he knows who the enemy is. ‘Gary Neville is a Red, he hates Scousers’, sing the United fans to the tune of London Bridge is Falling Down. The chant is a Mancunian reworking of that old 1970s terrace classic ‘Harry Roberts is our friend, he kills coppers’, a chant which seems to belong to a bygone era when working-class people knew who the enemy was. Nowadays, the anti-police songs have been replaced by whinging fans calling radio phone-in shows to grass up opposing players for their provocative goal celebrations. In this respect Alan Green’s 606 phone-in on Radio 5 isn’t so much a radio talk show as a shop-a-player hotline for replica-shirted copper’s narks.
Neville’s actions set in motion a chain of events that have become depressingly familiar these days. First we had the breast-beating from Alan Green and countless ‘Outraged of Merseyside’ callers to radio phone-ins. Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher also joined in the chorus of condemnation. ‘I think there is a line and Neville crossed it’, said the reformed coin-chucker-turned-sermoniser. Referee Mike Riley reviewed the video footage and reported Neville to the Football Association (FA). Greater Manchester police also saw fit to express their concerns in a letter to the FA. As a consequence the FA has charged Neville with misconduct.
To my knowledge badge kissing is not a criminal offence. So what exactly were the police doing sticking their noses into football’s business? Inflammatory goal celebrations have, it is true, been outlawed by FIFA edicts, but there is a difference between the laws of football and the law of the land. You wouldn’t expect the police to arrest footballers for timewasting or encroaching at free kicks, so why are they concerned about goal celebrations? (I’m tempted to ask whether they’ve got better things to do, like catching hubcap thieves, but I wouldn’t want my comments to be construed as part of some International Anti-Liverpool Conspiracy.)
The police would no doubt argue that provocative goal celebrations could incite crowd trouble. But football fans are not Pavlovian dogs who instinctively start rucking as soon as they see an opponent kiss his badge. Even though footballers make provocative gestures every Saturday afternoon, crowd violence inside football grounds is largely a thing of the past. Sure, there are plenty of abusive songs and gestures but it’s all largely theatrical. With no warring fans to control, the police have increasingly turned their attentions to relatively petty offences like drunkenness or ticket touting, which account for a third of all football arrests. And now, by taking action over a footballer’s goal celebration, they are clearly pitching to become Brian Barwick’s Boot-Boys, the law enforcement arm of the FA.
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