Football: less than a matter of life and death

Only those with a malign view of fans could be surprised at the universal sympathy for Fabrice Muamba after his heart attack.

Duleep Allirajah

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The universal reaction of football fans to Fabrice Muamba collapsing on the pitch, having suffered a cardiac arrest, was a mixture of horror and compassion. Spurs fans applauded the Bolton player and chanted his name. I was among the many spectators at Championship fixtures on Tuesday night who took part in a minute’s applause. Supporters of all persuasions set aside club animosities to express their sympathies and best wishes for the 22-year-old midfielder. Football fans, predominantly white and working class, instinctively recognised a black asylum-seeker from Africa as ‘one of us’. Yet the wider media reaction shows that deep-rooted prejudices about football fans are never far from the surface.

‘The true voice of the game is being heard and I confess to pleasant surprise at the alacrity with which fans of Bolton and Tottenham united in wishing or praying for Muamba’s recovery’, wrote Patrick Barclay in the London Evening Standard. But why should we be surprised at this collective expression of good will and humanity? The subtext is that we don’t expect decent behaviour from uncouth football fans. As Mick Dennis, writing in the Daily Express, put it: ‘We were thankful that football supporters behaved properly for once because frequently some do not.’

Barclay contrasted the respectful reaction of Spurs fans with the tasteless and abusive chants so often heard on matchdays: ‘How do you square the outpourings of sympathy for Fabrice Muamba and respect for Gary Speed with the vile chants about the death of Nigel Doughty, the Nottingham Forest chairman, heard at the club’s recent match against Derby County?’. Derby fans reportedly chanted ‘Where’s your chairman gone?’ to taunt their Midlands rivals Forest. Daniel Taylor in the Observer also used the opportunity to condemn abusive chanting. ‘Amid the traumas of what unfolded, the Spurs fans could not have handled the experience with greater dignity and empathy. The problem, as we see so regularly, is that football is too often willing to go the other way’, wrote Taylor. ‘It is an anything-goes mentality, often perpetrated by people who would never dream of acting that way outside of a football ground but follow, like Daleks, in the anonymity of a crowd.’

How do we explain the Jeckyll and Hyde behaviour of fans – abusive one minute, compassionate the next? ‘The vast majority of football fans harbour decent emotions’, wrote Barclay. ‘Which makes it all the more important that those who let the game and humanity down are expelled.’ The idea that most fans are decent while a hateful minority perpetrate the abuse is a lazy fiction. It completely misses the point about terrace chanting, namely that it is largely theatrical. Yes, it looks like tribal conflict. Yes, people hurl hurtful abuse at each other in a stadium. But, whisper it, they don’t really mean it. I suspect that many of Spurs fans who applauded Muamba will, in a different context, quite happily sing abusive songs about Sol Campbell or Arsene Wenger. They’re perfectly capable of distinguishing between the yah-boo pantomime of a football match and a real tragedy.

In his book, A Season with Verona, the novelist Tim Parks explains that football ‘offers a new and fiercely ironic way of engaging with the sacred’. In other words, football replicates all the devotional rituals of a religion yet it is devoid of true belief. The fierce rivalry between clubs appears warlike, yet it isn’t really war. The war songs are just for show. Bill Shankly famously said: ‘Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.’ This quotation is often taken as evidence that football takes itself too seriously. Yet Shankly’s words were uttered in jest. They were ironic.

In the same way that his irony is missed, so commentators fail to appreciate the irony of terrace chants. We don’t really believe that Brighton fans ‘take it up the bum’, that the Welsh are ‘sheep shaggers’, or that Scousers ‘look in a dustbin for something to eat’. We just sing these songs to wind up the opposition fans. When we go back to work on a Monday morning, the animosities are put aside. There might be a bit of gentle banter and teasing but we don’t actually scream hateful abuse at colleagues who follow rival teams. We know where to draw the line.

The applause for Muamba which rang round White Hart Lane as he was carried from the pitch was heartwarming but hardly exceptional. Every week, you’ll see fans of opposing teams doing the same thing: applauding players who are stretchered off injured. Every week, you’ll see rival supporters immaculately observe minutes of silence for players or club officials who have passed away. Fans don’t need to be told a young man’s life is more important than a mere game of football. They don’t need to be patronisingly reminded that football is ‘only a game’. It may come as a shock to those who view football fans as thugs and bigots, but we do have a moral compass.

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

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