In defence of terrace abuse

The arguments that football fans have become too abusive and more inclined to violence don’t stack up.

Duleep Allirajah

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Is verbal abuse of footballers by fans getting out of hand? Yes, according to Garth Crooks who presented the case for the prosecution in a BBC Radio Five Live’s Songs of Rage special this week.

Crooks interviewed Robbie Savage and Craig Bellamy, two of the most vilified men in football, who confirmed – to nobody’s surprise – that they’ve been vilified. ‘I’ve heard some of the most vile, vile things that you could imagine in football’, said Bellamy. Savage felt it was only ‘a matter of time’ before a fan assaults a player on the pitch. I also took part in the programme. It was quite good fun, even if I was cast in the Nick Griffin role of having to justify all manner of unspeakable evils. ‘Your view is – how should we put this – it’s quite an extreme one’, said presenter Dan Walker when introducing me.

The notion that verbal abuse by fans has crossed some kind of decency threshold and that, consequently, ’something must be done’ is an idea whose time has come. Earlier this year, 11 Spurs fans were prosecuted for directing indecent chants at Sol Campbell. This month, new FA chief executive Ian Watmore called for a crackdown on abusive chanting. ‘There are areas of chanting that go beyond what’s technically illegal, like racist or homophobic chanting, into what I think of as vile chanting’, Watmore said. ‘We in football should think about ways in which we can exorcise that from the game, but without glorifying it, because it puts the average person off.’

Rob Kelly in his Telegraph blog argues that abusive chanting should no longer be tolerated. ‘Racist chants against black players are not heard, and are anathema to the vast majority of supporters’, wrote Kelly. ‘But while racism may be on its way out, it still lingers on among a small minority and has been joined by a variety of sick and twisted chants that are arguably just as offensive, just as disgusting.’ (1)

Naturally, as the champion of terrace filth, I think that these claims are just a steaming pile of horse manure. The arguments simply don’t stack up. Let’s examine them in turn.

1. Terrace abuse is getting worse.

Is there any evidence for this? Well not very much. Some people, like Harry Redknapp, insist that ‘fings ain’t wot they used to be’. ‘When I started watching football as a kid, you just watched the game, rather than concentrating on shouting things at people on the pitch or in the opposite stand’, said Redknapp. The reality is that fans have been hurling all manner of sick and abusive insults at each other for years. If you went to football matches in the 1980s you’d hear plenty of offensive chants about the Munich air crash, the Holocaust, incest, sheep shagging, AIDS and so on. It’s certainly no worse today. What has changed are social attitudes to offensive speech. In short, we’re become a bit too easily offended.

2. Banter is acceptable but personal abuse oversteps the mark.

The distinction between banter and abuse is so subjective as to be meaningless. How would we define personal abuse? Is it any kind of personal insult or slur? Is it anything that causes offence to someone else? It’s practically impossible to draw a line. For example, while he was playing for Reading, Dave Kitson argued that ginger chants are as bad a racism. ‘Just because I am a footballer doesn’t mean someone can call me a ginger whatever’, said Kitson. Football chants can be pretty cruel. But if we started banning anything that causes offence or hurts people’s feelings we could end up outlawing an awful lot of terrace chanting.

3. Abuse inevitably leads to physical violence.

Robbie Savage plays the part of pantomime villain with good grace. He told Five Live that he expects fans to chant ‘Robbie Savage is a wanker’. Indeed, he positively thrives on it. I like his attitude. However, he says that the abuse has spilled over into his personal life. ‘I’ve had deaths threats to my home, I’ve had my house attacked, windows smashed, I was spat upon’, he told Garth Crooks. Is this acceptable? Of course not. Fans who physically attack footballers are idiots and should be prosecuted.

But is it inevitable that verbal abuse leads to physical assault? No. Every week hundreds of thousands of people go to football matches in this country. Opposing players are jeered and abused at most games. But how often are players physically attacked on the pitch? Hardly ever. The perimeter fences were torn down after Hillsborough, but pitch incursions remain extremely rare. How often are players assaulted by fans outside of football grounds? Again, it’s very rare. Most of us can control ourselves. We might hurl dog’s abuse inside the stadium, but the hostilities cease when we step outside.

So, there’s sod all evidence that abuse is getting worse or that it inevitably leads to physical violence. There’s quite a large dollop of theatricality about the abuse that fans dish out. Whisper it: we might sing songs of hate, but we don’t really mean it. If anything, it’s the gathering crusade against abusive chanting that is more dangerous. Why? Well, firstly, we live in a democracy and therefore ought to enjoy the hard-won right to free speech. And that means all speech. No qualifications. No strings attached. People should be free to say – or chant – whatever they want, however vile or abusive. Terrace chants might be tasteless and unedifying, but that’s still not a good enough reason to erode our civil liberties.

Secondly, abusive chanting is integral to the match-day experience. The passion, the noise, the banter, the crude trading of insults – these are all the essential ingredients of what we call ‘atmosphere’. Remove the abusive chanting and football will end up sanitised and soulless. In fact, the game is in grave danger of heading that way already.

Finally, I think it’s important that we have a cultural space where grown men can go a bit mental. Football provides that. It’s one of those exceptional cultural arenas in which the normal conventions of social conduct are temporarily relaxed. For 90 minutes on a Saturday we are allowed to behave like big kids. Let off a bit of steam. Scream, swear and curse to kingdom come. If we weren’t able to release our inner Malcolm Tuckers at football, then our cultural lives would be all the poorer for it.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Sport

(1) Harry Redknapp is right: fans’ abuse is getting worse and it turns the stomach, Telegraph, 16 October 2009

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