Football is pantomime for grown-ups

Why shouldn’t we boo Cole? Footie is one arena where men still have the right to behave like pillocks for 90 minutes.

Duleep Allirajah

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To boo or not to boo? That is the question. Again. Been here before, haven’t we? Jeez, it’s only bit of booing. Have we nothing better to get our knickers in a twist about?

On Saturday, Ashley Cole was booed by a section of England fans after his casual back pass allowed Kazakhstan to score. England coach Fabio Capello expressed his bewilderement at Cole’s treatment. ‘I couldn’t understand the crowd booing Ashley Cole after he made a mistake’, Capello said (though being Italian he probably meant that he didn’t understand why the fans didn’t trash the player’s car as they do back home). Rio Ferdinand was more outspoken, calling the boo boys ‘immature and ignorant’. On BBC Radio Five Live’s 606 phone-in programme, Alan Green was in full pious frothing mode, branding the fans ‘morons’. The Mirror’s Oliver Holt was equally contemptuous. ‘England will never regain their place as one of the world’s leading football nations while morons who call themselves supporters boo their own players at their own ground’, he thundered (1).

On the other hand there are those who argue that the fans have paid their money and therefore have the right to voice their opinions. As one Times Online reader put it: ‘We pay your wages, we have the right to express our feelings. I earn a fraction of his weekly wages every year and if I make a mistake I could be out of a job.’ Another fan, posting on the 606 message board, echoed this sentiment: ‘As a paying punter I feel I have the right to boo whoever I like.’

So which camp are you in? Are you with the morons or against them? I wasn’t at Wembley myself. I was at a children’s party at a soft play centre in Bromley if you must know – that’s modern parenthood for you. But if I’d been at the game, I wouldn’t have booed Ashley Cole. It’s not my style. I don’t see the point in booing your own players during a game. It doesn’t matter how poorly they’re playing; booing won’t make them play better, will it?

I also think Cole is too easy a target. Quite a few England players were below par against Kazakhstan but Cole was singled out because he ticks all the right ‘boo’ boxes. The rap sheet reads like this:

  • He was fined for breaching the rules on ‘tapping up’ after his infamous not-very-secret secret meeting with Chelsea’s Jose Mourinho and Peter Kenyon in a hotel in 2005 when we was still an Arsenal player;
  • He was dubbed ‘Cashley Cole’ after revealing in his memoir that he was so offended by Arsenal’s paltry £55,000 per week pay offer that he nearly crashed his car;
  • He plays for Chelsea, England’s current must-hate club, who are envied and reviled for buying success. As one contributor to the BBC 606 forum said: ‘Yesterday all those booing Cole (including me) were fans who can’t stand Chelsea – and are anti-Chelsea fans first and England fans second’;
  • His televised display of dissent towards referee Mike Riley last season was seen to epitomise the rampant lack of respect for officials;
  • He’s a VIP love rat who cheated on Cheryl, his popstar WAG.

In short, there are only two nominees for Most Hated Footballer in Britain: Ashley Cole and Joey Barton.

Personally, I don’t think Ashley Cole did himself any favours publishing his whingeing self-regarding autobiography My Defence. But nor do I particularly care what Cole gets up to in his private life, where he sticks his mobile phone, how much he gets paid, or whether he’s flash or arrogant. What I can’t abide is the rank hypocrisy of the media in condemning the booing of Cole. Who do they think the boo boys took their cue from? The media, of course. It’s the press who demonised ‘Cashley Cole’ and the mercenary ‘Baby Bentley culture’ which he supposedly symbolises.

On the BBC 606 message board many fans argued that Cole was deservedly booed, not for his slack backpass, but for his lifestyle and attitude. ‘Those fans booed Cole because they had an excuse, the backpass was a catalyst, they were booing for his behaviour, his personality, his wage packet, everything bad in modern football, which is handily summed up in one arrogant package’, said guyb99 (2). ‘When Cashley made his mistake it gave sections of the crowd an excuse, an opportunity to boo an individual that is not well-liked due to his greed, contempt for refs, sheer arrogance and the fact that he has spent the last X years generally getting up people’s noses’, concurred neiljon31.

These fans are simply recycling the same sentiments that you’ll find in countless newspaper columns. The fans hiss and jeer but it’s the press who wrote the script. Steven Howard in the Sun, for example, defended the barracking of a player who has become ‘the focal point of an outraged public’s increasing contempt for a group of pampered, over-indulged millionaires who had lost all touch with reality’ (3). Kevin Garside in the Telegraph bemoaned the increasing ‘schism’ between players and fans which ‘has allowed resentment to creep in’. As Garside puts it: ‘Cole epitomises this schism, which has been accompanied by football’s parallel slide into celebrity culture. In the eyes of Highbury’s old North Bank faithful, Cole betrayed them with his move to Chelsea every bit as much as he cheated on Cheryl, his trophy wife. He then compounded his error by bleating for money in one of the more anodyne examples of the football autobiography. In short, Cole is, from the outside, a hard bloke to like.’ (4)

In the anti-booing camp, dislike of Cole was also rife. ‘I do not like Ashley Cole. I don’t like his attitude, I don’t rate him as a defender and the mistake that resulted in the goal last night was ridiculous. However, I do not agree with booing any player, especially an England player during a competitive game’, said Andythevillafan. LarrySanders agreed. ‘I don’t much like Ashley Cole. In fact he represents an awful lot that’s wrong with football and wrong with society. BUT when he steps out on that pitch he’s an England player and he’ll get my support.’ On both sides of the booing debate there is broad agreement that Cole’s atttitude stinks; it’s just that the anti-booing brigade believes that the middle of a football match is not the right time and place to stick the boot in.

I don’t think England fans should have booed Cole. However, I do think they should have the right to boo him. Why? Well for a start it’s only booing. It’s harmless. Bricks weren’t thrown. Nobody got killed. I’m not suggesting that there’s anything inherently articulate or valuable about booing. It’s a bit silly and childish really. And that’s the point. Football is pantomime for grown-ups. (In fact, if someone had shouted ‘He’s behind you, Ashley!’ none of this would have happened.) It’s one of the few social arenas left where grown men can go to swear, shout, sing, and generally behave irresponsibly. If we can’t hurl abuse and let off steam at football then our cultural life will be the poorer for it. To paraphrase Voltaire: I don’t agree with the boo boys, but I’ll defend to the death their right to act like pillocks for 90 minutes.

PLUS: Read Mick Hume in The Times on the booing brouhaha: click here.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked‘s sports columnist. He is speaking about cricket and football chanting at the Battle of Ideas festival at the Royal College of Art, London on 1&2 November.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Sport

(1) When England fans boo like they did against Kazakhstan, who needs enemies?, Mirror, 13 October 2008

(2) BBC 606 forum

(3) Of course fans can boo Ashley, Sun, 13 October 2008

(3) Public enemy Ashley Cole sums up selfish England age, Telegraph, 13 October 2008

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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