Don’t let football become a tearjerker
Footballers should keep their emotions in check - and expect pelters when they turn on the waterworks.
How do you respond to the spectacle of a grown man bawling his eyes out in public?
In the case of Luis Suárez, who was sobbing into his shirt on Monday night, the reaction among the Crystal Palace supporters was to sing, dance, clap and mock. ‘Three-nil and you fucked it up’, bellowed the delirious Palace fans after Liverpool’s spectacular 11-minute collapse all but gifted the Premier League title to Manchester City. Noel Gallagher, a notable celebrity City fan, also revelled in seeing his title rivals crying. ‘It was nice to see Suarez in tears at the end. I like that because he’s a blatant cheat’, said the Oasis star. ‘And it’s nice to see him and Steven Gerrard cry. It’s an endearing image’. Is this mockery just harmless terrace banter or symptomatic of an unreconstructed ‘boys don’t cry’ machismo?
These days, the sight of a blubbing footballer is no longer an eyebrow-raising curiosity. Gazza’s tears in the 1990 World Cup semi-final were game-changing, launching a thousand turgid cultural-studies dissertations on the changing norms of British masculinity. While we were taken aback by the sight of footballer crying in 1990, on-field weeping now seems as obligatory as shirt-swapping. In fact, springtime is practically the weeping season, the time when trophies are won or lost, teams are promoted or relegated, and dreams are shattered.
In recent weeks, we’ve seen John Terry, Steven Gerrard, Ashley Cole and Luis Suárez all weeping publicly. As for the fans, when they’re not mocking their distraught opponents, they’re probably welling up, too. The obligatory close-up of a weeping fan has become the ‘money shot’ of sports broadcasting. This preoccupation with the emotional narrative of a football match is a relatively novel phenomenon. In the 1970s and 80s, the focus was on the game itself. Now the cameras zoom in much more on the faces of managers, capturing their agony or ecstasy; they linger voyeuristically on red-faced fans mopping their tears. Likewise, interviewers now seem more interested in how the players feel than how a match was won or lost. It feels more like grief porn than football coverage.
But while commentators are focusing more on the emotional drama, the old irreverent, thick-skinned terrace culture is still alive and kicking. We see it in the Twitter jokes and memes that go viral after every high-profile blubbing incident. John Terry’s tears after Chelsea’s defeat to Atletico Madrid in the Champions League semi-final, prompted a bout of e-mockery, such as the picture of the ‘Terry Tiny Tears’ doll (‘she’s just like a real baby’). We saw a similar schadenfreude-fest when Terry blubbed uncontrollably in 2008 after defeat in the Champions League final.
Perhaps the mockery of Suárez and Terry is amplified because both players are hate figures. However, the fact that we are only too happy to poke fun at Steven Gerrard, too, who does not attract the same degree of opprobrium, shows that laughing at other people’s misfortune is hardwired into the DNA of football fans. Taunting and mockery are what we do. On Monday, the Palace fans took took great pleasure in taunting Gerrard about his fateful slip against Chelsea. A football stadium can be a cruel, unforgiving place at times.
But surely, I hear you say, football is a passionate game and, therefore, the tears shed by footballers and fans reveal just how much it means to them. It’s true that football is an arena in which sentiment and emotion are allowed more free rein; the ‘home ground of the id’, as spiked’s editor-at-large Mick Hume has described it. To borrow a metaphor from England’s in-house shrink, Dr Steve Peters, it’s the realm where our ‘inner chimp’ is let out to play. So yes, it can get emotional at times. There was barely a dry eye in the house in the Palace section at Wembley last May when we won promotion. All around me, grown men were welling up. And there’s nothing wrong with getting a bit dewy-eyed over your team’s triumphs or tragedies.
What I find objectionable is the social value attached to tearfulness; the notion that public weeping is A Good Thing. The public sphere used to be an arena in which emotions were expected to be kept in check. Think about it: if your work colleagues burst into tears at the drop of a hat, your business would undoubtedly cease to function. Even in the febrile atmosphere of a football match, players still need to control their aggression and ignore the vicious backchat and crowd taunts. But we live in emotionally incontinent times. The stiff upper lip has started to quiver and the traditional distinction between public and private has become blurred. Parading your feelings in public is now positively encouraged while what’s said on the pitch or in the privacy of the dressing room is often leaked to the press or reported to the authorities.
Emotionalism also has an implicitly coercive character. The emotionally expressive footballer provides the template for all of us men to follow. Men are regarded as emotionally stunted knuckle-draggers who need to be taught to express our feelings. Not that this gives the green light for an emotional free-for-all. Some emotions, you see, are more equal than others. Shedding a tear or talking publicly about depression or addiction are good forms of emotional expression. Rage, on the other hand, is the wrong sort of emotion. I expect that laughing at Stevie G or Luis Suárez for sobbing also falls into the emotionally incorrect category.
But I don’t care. I’m glad that football hasn’t been completely colonised by the inexorable rise of emotionalism. I’m glad that we can still go to a match and laugh at someone else’s misery. And I’m glad that tearful footballers are mercilessly pilloried. Long may the mockery continue.
Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside.