Football’s thin-skinned culture of complaint

The willingness of fans to take offence risks destroying the freedom to engage in no-holds-barred terrace banter.

Duleep Allirajah

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This week’s M23 derby between Crystal Palace and Brighton was predictably tempestuous. The game itself was scrappy and ill-tempered. On the pitch there were fouls, theatrical dives, bookings and a couple of contentious penalties. Off the field, the longstanding enmity between the two sets of fans was palpable. Brighton fans taunted the home supporters that Selhurst Park was a ‘shithole’ and that the residents of Croydon had ‘burned [their] own town’. The hosts retorted with: ‘We scored three, they scored one, Brighton take it up the bum’ – a reminder of Palace’s victory at Brighton’s new Amex Stadium in September.

As banter goes it was the standard abusive fare you find at football matches. Was anyone offended? Most Palace supporters would probably concur that Selhurst Park has seen better days. I’m not sure whether many Brighton fans were outraged by the ‘take it up the bum’ chant, either. However, these days you can’t be sure. In October 2011, Brighton fans’ representatives called for tougher action against homophobic chants at Brighton matches. ‘We get it everywhere we go’, complained John Hewitt, who runs the Brighton supporters club. ‘There’s a certain amount of banter between fans, but when it crosses that line and becomes offensive it’s not acceptable. The FA is not doing enough.’ Invariably, the authorities have been quick to clamp down on anti-gay terrace taunts. In November, a Southampton fan was handed a three-year banning order for anti-gay abuse, while in December, a Barnsley fan was cautioned by police for a similar offence.

I’m not condoning anti-gay chants – I think they’re pretty infantile – but what is striking is the increasing incidence of fans complaining about abusive chants. Terrace banter has always been irreverent, crude and occasionally downright tasteless. But football fans were usually thick-skinned enough to withstand a bit of name-calling. Today, that is no longer the case. Fans complaining about abusive behaviour is becoming the norm. Football rivalry, which has traditionally consisted of trading taunts and threats, now expresses itself in the form of victim oneupmanship. Taking offence is the new terrace banter.

Take the Luis Suarez race row, for example. The Liverpool striker was banned for eight games for making comments regarded as offensive to Manchester United’s Patrice Evra. Leaving aside the vexed question of on-field racist abuse, the Suarez case has sparked an orgy of gratuitous victim-mongery. Not only was Kenny Dalglish lambasted for backing his player, but any Liverpool fans who chanted Suarez’s name were branded racist, as were fans who booed Evra in last week’s FA Cup clash between the two teams. On Twitter, Liverpool’s stadium has been branded ‘Klanfield’ by those who interpret the defence of Suarez as de facto racism. Individual Liverpool fans – including one who racially abused a black Oldham player and the fan caught on camera apparently making a monkey gesture at Evra – are not seen as lone idiots but symptomatic of a deeper racist sentiment.

Liverpool fans themselves are equally culpable of playing the victim card – some might argue they practically perfected the art form. After last week’s FA Cup fourth round tie, the Liverpool message boards were frothing with indignation at reports that some Manchester United fans had spat on the Hillsborough memorial. By the same token, United supporters have complained about rival fans – particularly supporters of Liverpool, Manchester City and Leeds United – mocking the Munich air crash. In turn, Leeds fans themselves complain about United fans celebrating the murder of two of their supporters in Turkey.

And so it goes on. Recrimination, complaints and finger-pointing are now the norm. I wonder how many of the complainants are really as disgusted as they claim? How many are taking offence ‘on behalf of’ others? It’s symptomatic of a wider cultural tendency, which assumes that humans are fragile souls who need to be protected against name-calling.

As I’ve argued before on spiked, deciding where banter ends and unacceptable abuse begins is inherently difficult. Who decides what is and isn’t hurtful or tasteless? These are fairly subjective and elastic concepts. In Scotland, a new law criminalising sectarian chanting was passed in December 2011. In his oral evidence to Holyrood’s Justice Committee, Mark Dingwall of the Rangers Supporters Trust warned that fans would ‘escalate the offensiveness’ by lodging complaints about all forms of insults. ‘What our fans and organisations have started to say is if we have to clean up our act, everyone else has to do the same’, said Dingwall. ‘So, therefore, everything that is offensive, by any football club, whether it’s under regional rivalry, or under sectarian rivalry, or whether it’s just winding up the opposition, then it’s all fair game because if it’s going to happen to us it’s got to happen to everybody.’ Dingwall’s intention might be to undermine the legislation, but it could just as easily help to legitimise the ‘thou shalt not offend’ culture.

It’s a shame that football fans have swapped trading insults for trading complaints. A football stadium was, traditionally, an arena in which social norms were relaxed; a place where adults could drink, swear and generally let off steam for 90 minutes. Now we have to permanently mind our language in case someone in the row behind us complains. It’s the over-zealous health-and-safety culture of the spoken word: ‘You can’t say that, someone might get hurt.’ I think fans need to call a halt to complaining and rediscover the old-fashioned art of taking it on the chin. If we don’t, we’re on the slippery slope to becoming a nation of police informers.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside

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