Why booing Eboué is no big deal

We should chill out about football fans shouting abuse at their own players: it’s only pointless pantomime.

Duleep Allirajah

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Booing. Again. Yes, I know, we’ve been there, done that, bought the replica shirt. But, after the furore over the booing of Arsenal’s Emmanuel Eboué by his own fans, I feel I must speak out.

‘Against what?’ you might ask. Well, the politicisation of booing, for starters; the notion that booing actually tells us something about the state of the nation. I speak here as an occasional boo boy. I got a bit pissed and booed at our office Christmas party last week. I’m not entirely sure why. And that’s precisely my point. It was an act without meaning, an act utterly devoid of significance.

Booing at football is pretty much the same. A bit of pantomime that means nothing in the grand scheme of things. Except that’s not how the vilification of Emmanuel Eboué has been interpreted. Eboué came on as a substitute in Arsenal’s league game against Wigan on 6 December and had an absolute stinker. Rusty after injury and playing out of position, his touch was heavy and too many passes were misplaced. And the Arsenal fans started booing. Eventually Arsene Wenger was forced to take him off and Eboué left the field in tears.

What did this all mean? To some, the treatment of Eboué was symptomatic of the wider ills of modern football. ‘The behaviour of the Arsenal fans… appeared to be driven by something more than old-fashioned frustration’, wrote Richard Williams in the Guardian. ‘It was the self-expression of the new breed of football fan, with his £1,000 season ticket and his increasing sense of entitlement.’ (1)

Chris McGrath in the Independent argued that the behaviour of the boo boys ‘was a symbol of decadence’. In his match report, he wrote: ‘It may seem harsh, but the fact is that people like this represent something – not just in football, but in society itself – and that means their feelings should not be spared. They are pampered and spoiled.’ (2)

Let’s try to unpick this shall we? The subtext is that money has had a corrosive effect on football. What was once the ‘people’s game’ has become gentrified. The ‘real fans’ who understand football have been priced out, displaced by glory-hunting Johnny Come Latelies who expect beautiful football every week. And when they don’t see it, they boo.

These sentiments are echoed on football websites. ‘I’m ashamed that fellow Arsenal fans booed Eboué and applauded when Wenger brought him off’, said one fan on the Football365 letters page. ‘This attitude, combined with the early leavers, is emblematic of the increasing gentrification of Arsenal Football Club embodied in our move to Ashburton Grove.’ (3)

Another fan, writing on the Online Gooner website, also pointed the finger at the nouveau fans. ‘I, for one, do get extremely frustrated with the new breed of fans that are at the club… The lack of atmosphere within the stadium is sometimes embarrassing.’ (4) The glory hunters also get it in the neck on the Sky Sports FanZone: ‘I was at the game and was not surprised at all to be honest’, wrote Arsenal fan Ali May. ‘The reason I am not surprised is that we have managed to “breed” a new type of fan due to the mega-rich nature of our league. It is now “trendy” to support football for some folk. No longer do some have any patience as they want success right away.’ (5)

Roy Keane made pretty much the same point back in 2000 about Manchester United’s home support: ‘We’re 1-0 up, then there are one or two stray passes and they’re getting on players’ backs. It’s just not on… Away from home our fans are fantastic, I’d call them the hardcore fans. But at home they have a few drinks and probably the prawn sandwiches, and they don’t realise what’s going on out on the pitch. I don’t think some of the people who come to Old Trafford can spell “football”, never mind understand it.’

It’s easy to blame the ‘day trippers’ and ‘plastic fans’ for the muted atmosphere at football grounds. Personally, I’d focus on other factors, particularly the ‘no standing, no drinking, no swearing’ killjoy culture that has been imposed on football fans. Visit some of the less glamorous football league grounds, places that gentrification hasn’t touched, and you’ll find that the atmosphere isn’t what it used to be.

And as for booing your own players, let’s keep things in perspective. I think it’s fairly stupid and childish. But wasn’t it ever thus? Football fans were booing their own players long before Sky TV came along. I remember that back in the 1980s many Crystal Palace fans used to boo Alan Pardew. ‘Super Al’ is now a bona fide Palace legend thanks to his winning goal in the 1990 FA Cup semi-final against Liverpool. But until that glorious moment, he was usually the terrace scapegoat when the team wasn’t playing well. And of course, there wasn’t a glory hunter in sight at Selhurst Park in those days (admittedly there aren’t too many these days either).

Booing isn’t a metaphor for the corrosion of manners, the gentrification of football or anything else. It’s just booing. It means nothing. Of course, it’s no fun being jeered by your own fans, but a professional footballer ought to be able to take abuse on the chin. In an interview on the eve of the 2004 Championship playoff final, Alan Pardew, then West Ham manager, reflected on the booing he endured at Selhurst Park: ‘I wasn’t always the hero at Palace. I had some tough times there and it was the making of me. That’s why my skin is so thick. You need that in football.’ If there’s a moral in these words for Emmanuel Eboué, it’s this: You were crap. You were booed. Deal with it.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked‘s sports columnist.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Sport

(1) Arsenal and Eboué suffer the curse of the £1,000-a-season fan, Guardian, 9 December 2008

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