Are some football songs just too offensive?
Songs about the Munich air crash are in bad taste, but we don’t need censorship on the terraces.
Trading insults is what football is all about. Well, goals too, but you know what I mean. Part of the fun of going to football is the abusive chanting. Witty, cruel, irreverent, obscene and occasionally downright tasteless. But are there some chants that cross the threshold of decency?
The recent Carling Cup tie between Leeds and Manchester United has led to calls for an end to certain tasteless chants. I’m talking about Leeds fans singing the infamous ‘Runway Song’ which mocks the tragic 1958 Munich plane crash. ‘Who’s that dying on the runway, who’s that dying in the snow?’ the song goes. United fans, for their part, goaded their opponents by chanting ‘Always look out for Turks carrying knives’ and unfurling an ‘Istanbul’ banner – a reference to the fatal stabbing of two Leeds supporters in Turkey 11 years ago.
This week a YouTube video clip featuring a four-year-old on a scooter singing the Munich song caused a rather predictable furore. ‘Sickening! Busby family outrage at boy of four being taught vile Munich song’, thundered the Daily Mail, who brought the video to the attention of Sandy Busby, the late United manager’s son who, understandably, was outraged. ‘This is a sick and sad situation. It’s unbelievable to think that a four-year-old boy would be taught the words of this disgusting song. I have seen it all now’, said Busby. There has been widespread condemnation of Munich chants from leading figures in the game. ‘There is no room in football for chants that are in poor taste in any way, shape or form’, said Liverpool boss Kenny Dalglish. ‘Personally, I think there is a line that should not been crossed by either set of fans’, said Sunderland manager Steve Bruce.
Munich chants are, without a doubt, extremely offensive. But what’s the point of insults that don’t hurt? The Munich disaster is sacred to United fans. The plane crash, in which 23 people lost their lives, is integral to the club’s identity. And it’s precisely because Munich is so sacred that mocking the tragedy is such a sacrilege. In an era when sex is no longer taboo and organised religion is on the wane, traditional profanities have lost their capacity to offend. But the Munich chant still touches a raw nerve in the red half of Manchester. It is genuinely shocking. That’s why United’s fiercest rivals still chant the Runway song, make aeroplane gestures and refer to United as the ‘Munichs’.
I’m not condoning these chants. They are, without a doubt, tasteless, insulting and utterly childish. What concerns me about the current discussion about sick chanting, however, is that it invariably invites greater scrutiny and regulation of fan conduct. The Football Offences Act 1991 prohibits ‘indecent or racialist’ chanting at football matches. This provision has predominantly been used against the relatively rare instances of racist chanting and has been used rarely to punish fans for indecent chanting. However, two years ago, a number of Spurs fans were prosecuted for directing indecent chants at Sol Campbell (‘We don’t give a fuck if you’re hanging from a tree, you’re a Judas cunt with HIV’). These prosecutions set a dangerous precedent as the term ‘indecent’ is open to wide interpretation.
The Scottish government has recently introduced the ‘Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Bill’ which aims to criminalise sectarian chanting at football matches. What constitutes ‘offensive behaviour’? The bill defines this as expressing or stirring up hatred against people of a particular religious affiliation. This would probably mean that Rangers fans singing jaunty little ditties such as the Famine Song could find themselves on the wrong side of the law.
If that wasn’t bad enough, the Bill would also prohibit ‘behaviour that a reasonable person would be likely to consider offensive’. I’m not entirely sure what a reasonable person looks like but if a ‘reasonable person’ is deemed to be a typical Guardian reader, then football fans probably ought to be very afraid.
Times football writer Graham Spiers, who gave evidence to Holyrood’s Justice Committee, has attempted to define where the boundary of decency lies. ‘It would be good, in this country, if we can make a distinction between disparaging chants (and) offensive chanting, which might be acceptable, and downright discrimination or prejudice’ he told the committee.
Spiers’ convoluted attempt to define the decency threshold illustrates just how difficult it is to draw any sort of line. Who decides what is harmful? Is a chant unacceptable if the victim’s feelings are hurt? What if over-sensitive referees objected to fans calling them ‘wankers’ and ‘cheats’? What if the Welsh decided it was tine to stop the ubiquitous ‘sheep shaggers’ chants? Fat bastards might feel emotionally damaged by the chants directed at them. One person’s harmless banter is another person’s bullying. Portsmouth striker Dave Kitson, for example, has argued that ginger jibes aimed at him are racist.
If we start to punish fans for indulging in chants that cross some ill-defined decency threshold we could end up with a punitive but equally farcical version of what is now happening in Belgium. Referees in the Belgian leagues have been instructed to stop games in an attempt to stamp out offensive chanting. A match between Lierse and Beerschot was suspended when fans directed chants of ‘Fukushima, Fukushima’ towards Lierse’s Japanese goalkeeper. Another match between Racing Genk and Standard Liege was suspended when Genk’s Flemish fans taunted their opponents with chants of ‘Les Wallons, c’est du caca’ (Walloons are shit). Sounds ludicrous doesn’t it? But this is what happens if you take the commandment ‘thou shalt not cause offence’ to its logical conclusion.
To return to the question of how fans should deal with chanting that we find really objectionable, such as the Munich song or racist chants, I don’t think this should be a matter for the stewards or police. Nor do I want to see referees become arbiters of decency. Fans should deal with objectionable chants or jibes themselves. I was at White Hart Lane a few years ago when a group of young Palace fans started singing ‘Spurs are on their way to Auschwitz’. A number of us turned round and confronted them. We succeeded in shutting them up. It won’t always be as easy or safe for fans to take matters into their own hands. But self-policing is the only way we can ensure that official clampdowns on indecent or sick chanting don’t become a Trojan horse for the sanitisation of terrace culture.
Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.
For information about a campaign against the proposed Scottish law on sectarianism, see the Take a Liberty (Scotland) website.