In defence of crowd incitement

In the sanitised stadia of top-flight football, provocative goal celebrations remind fans of why football rivalry is fun.

Duleep Allirajah

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‘You can’t do that, you’ll incite the crowd.’ That was the general tone of the reaction to Emmanuel Adebayor’s controversial goal celebration at Eastlands at the weekend. The Manchester City striker ran the length of the pitch to celebrate in front of the Arsenal fans who had been giving the former Gooner grief throughout the game. Having already incurred a three-game ban for his stamp on former team-mate Robin Van Persie’s head, Adebayor has now been charged by the FA with improper conduct for his goal celebration.

Leaving aside the challenge on Van Persie, which admittedly doesn’t look too pretty when you study the slow motion replays, let’s just dwell on the goal celebration. BBC sports writer Phil McNulty condemned what he described as ‘Adebayor’s senseless, provocative 90-yard dash to incite Arsenal’s supporters’ (1). Rob Kelly in the Telegraph sports blog wrote: ‘It was a witless, arrogant and idiotic act, and the forward deserves all the censure he was received since. His actions were incendiary and potentially dangerous.’ (2)

Was Adebayor’s goal celebration pre-meditated or a momentary act of madness in the heat of battle? The player himself denies it. ‘I didn’t plan it, not at all… didn’t even know that I would score’, he said after the game. Planned or not, there’s little doubt about what the goal celebration meant. It was an eloquent riposte to the boo-boys; his way of saying ‘take that you cunt’, to borrow Roy Keane’s famous phrase. It might not have been choreographed, but it was obviously intended to infuriate the travelling Gooners.

However, it doesn’t follow that Adebayor should be punished for what he did. The charge of incitement has become a depressingly common feature of the modern game. ‘You can’t do that, you’ll incite the crowd’ has become an all-purpose pretext for prohibiting any displays of passion and over-exuberance. And we wonder why the atmosphere at many of our top-flight football matches is as hushed as a church service. Incitement charges have grown in inverse proportion to the actual incidence of crowd violence. The violent scenes at last month’s Carling Cup tie between West Ham and Millwall were pretty exceptional. You might see the odd scuffle on the terraces these days, but mass fighting between rival fans at football matches is extremely rare.

Yet, although mass violence is largely a thing of the past, it is increasingly common for footballers to be cautioned for the crime passionel of going a bit mental when they score a goal. Whip off your shirt: Yellow card. Jump over the perimeter fence: Yellow card. Kiss your badge in front of the opposing fans: Yellow card. As Middlesbrough boss Gareth Southgate put it: ‘If you can’t enjoy celebrating goals then there is a problem.’

I think it’s high time we stopped the ludicrous practice of punishing players for provocative goal celebrations. Why? Firstly, I think that both fans and players should be a bit more thick-skinned when it comes to trading abuse. It’s what football is all about. Well, okay, there’s also the scoring goals bit, but you get my drift. Part of the essential fun of football is the opportunity to sing, shout, swear and generally throw off the shackles for 90 minutes. Taunting opposing fans and players is a fairly standard part of the matchday ritual.

However, if you’re going to dish out abuse, as the Arsenal fans did on Saturday, then you ought to be able to take it on the chin as well. Gareth Southgate is a rare voice of sanity in the debate over Adebayor’s conduct. ‘I stand in the dug out in away grounds and get abuse, players get abuse at grounds, but yet when the boot is on other foot we are quick to jump on people’s backs’, he said. ‘The wind-up goes both ways, if you give it you have to take it and if people can’t accept someone celebrating they may be should not give him the sort of stick he was getting during the game as well.’

Quite right. There’s nothing more irritating than listening to the succession of sanctimonious whingers calling football phone-ins to complain about provocative goal celebrations. Really, if you can’t take a bit of teasing, please stay away from football. You’re spoiling the enjoyment for the rest of us.

Some, like Rob Kelly, would argue that Adebayor must be punished because his goal celebrations led directly to crowd trouble. ‘By running to celebrate in front of the Arsenal fans, he must have been well aware of what would happen and it did’, wrote Kelly. Sure, there were lots of enraged Gooners, but what was the extent of the trouble? A few plastic bottles were thrown. A group of Arsenal fans surged towards the stewards (and were restrained). One steward was reportedly knocked unconscious. Six fans were arrested after the game. And that was pretty much the sum of it. Ugly scenes, perhaps, but hardly a riot.

But even if the trouble had been worse, would it be right to blame Adebayor? The Arsenal fans aren’t dumb beasts devoid of free will (though Spurs fans may disagree). Surely, they are capable of choosing whether or not to react to the provocation?

Herein lies the problem with the prohibition of inflammatory goal celebrations. It is predicated on a very dim view of football fans. The implicit assumption is that football crowds are unable to control themselves; they are snarling pit bulls who attack when they hear the command. Despite the virtual elimination of crowd trouble at matches, football fans are still treated as a riot waiting to happen.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.

Read on: spiked-issue Sport.

(1) Adebayor madness mars Man City win, BBC News, 12 September 2009

(2) Emmanuel Adebayor must be punished by the FA – and also by Manchester City manager Mark Hughes, Daily Telegraph, 13 September 2009

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