The events in recent weeks around accusations of racism (John Terry , Mark Clattenburg and that Letchworth-based man) and anti-semitism (West Ham crowd) have brought the subject very much to the forefront of media debate. Should we be surprised that such language exists at football matches? No.
Prejudice has always existed at football grounds, among football people and basically, among the masses. Despite a huge percentage of professional footballers (indeed sportsmen) being black, you still hear people describe them as “spades”, “darkies” and other such insults. While black players of your own club are OK, those of the opposition are not – that’s the sentiment.
Anti-semitism is curious. It exists in many walks of life, but it has always seemed acceptable to call Tottenham “Yids” and the club’s fans (presumably the non-Jewish ones) have long adopted the term as a nickname. It’s a bit of a fallacy that all Tottenham fans are Jewish, because many patrons of the Emirates Stadium, home of Arsenal, happen to be Jewish. People behind the scenes at Arsenal are Jewish, and guess what, Roman Abramovich is also Jewish, along with one or two of his close aides. To make matters even more complex, David Gold, co-chairman of West Ham, is also Jewish!
The prejudice is not limited to top-line football. Wingate & Finchley is a club that plays several rungs below Spurs, but they have Jewish roots and most of their officials are also Jewish. At a recent game involving the North London club, they were described to me as “Jew boys”, and that was from someone who should know better. Wingate & Finchley, it should be added, are one of the nicest clubs on the non-league circuit and deserve much better public support.
Likewise, women in football also encounter problems, although now that the female game is gathering momentum, credibility is rising. But women in the men’s game, now that’s a different matter. Just watch one of the many lady physios run across the pitch and hear the catcalls. But I witnessed a rather unsavoury incident a few years ago when a lady referee, again in the non-league world, gave a penalty in the final minute of a game at Croydon. The spot-kick was converted and Croydon lost. The abuse – from Croydon officials – was terrible, calling the referee a “whore”, “bitch”, “slapper” and suchlike. When I intervened and commented to them that they were “out of order”, I was greeted with abuse, and at the foot of the grandstand, two Croydon heavies were waiting to meet me. That club doesn’t exist today and I wonder why?
One of football’s biggest problems is that it doesn’t like whistle-blowers. The Croydon incident is one thing, but when I reported on it in the press, I was criticized for pointing it out – one letter said “shame on you”. Similarly, over a decade ago, I highlighted the heady mixture of racism, homophobia and abuse (one player was called ‘chemotherapy man’ because he recently suffered from cancer) that was the soundtrack of a group of non-league fans at Hendon. Some extreme fans wanted me banned from the ground for doing so. Ten years later, someone else tried to curb bad language at the same ground and received almost identical treatment.
The behavior of football fans reflects society in many ways and that’s where the sickness lies. The game merely provides an outlet that in the past, has been difficult to curb. In the CCTV world of antiseptic stadia, it should be far easier to identify and punish.