A knee in the groin of football

WE CANNOT deny that football has a racism problem, however much some people would like to bury their heads in the sand. It’s not the racism of old, but a more sinister, cowardly type of behaviour that flourishes on social media and allows the perpetrators the cloak of anonymity. It’s not just a football issue, the past five years have seen a rise in all kinds of bigotry, from racism to anti-semitism, homophobia to islamophobia.

Football has allowed itself to be a showcase for a lot of virtue-signalling and this does dilute the currency when it comes to adding causes and stances. However, football’s Black Lives Matter is not a cause but a reaction to events that took place in the US and the torrent of abuse that black footballers receive from social media trolls on a daily basis.

Any claims that taking a knee is not political stand lack credibility when there is a movement called Black Lives Matter that goes beyond equal rights. No matter how footballers might insist politics do not come into the process of dropping a knee before a game, the link is a little confusing.

It is hard not to agree with the sentiment of the players are demonstrating before kick-off, a largely benign gesture that, in its early stages, was a definite eye-opener. Now, this short manoeuvre is being jeered by fans, quite loudly despite the attempts of TV to reduce the noise and talk over it. It is very noticeable and is not exclusive to any one group of fans. If the past year had seen football played in front of crowds, there is no doubt the reaction would have been pretty much the same.

Why are fans doing this? Even though the jeering is not coming from a miniscule group of people, the modern football crowd, for all its crudity and robustness, is not an overwhelmingly racist body. Consider that the historic racist behaviour was very openly unpleasant, chants and objects thrown on the pitch. The fans in question didn’t care who heard it or who was offended.

Today’s racism is much more localised, which is still unacceptable and unpleasant, but nobody wants to be outed as a racist even if you are one. So in the 21st high-tech century, would fans jeer players for taking a knee with the aim of expressing a racist view when it can be so easily pinpointed by police, stewards and TV? 

It could be the fans are actually taking exception because it implies they are racist when, as we know, the vast majority of the racism aimed at players is not necessarily in the stadium but in the murky underworld of social media. This may be a case of misinterpretation. 

As in all cases of prejudice and directed abuse, if one person is offended, then there’s a problem. We have seen players like Raheem Sterling brazenly abused by fans, we have witnessed teams walk off in disgust after racism has poured from the stands and we still do not see enough black and Asian fans in our stadiums. Words are easy to write about how bad racism is, but in this case, actions really do have an effect. The campaign may have run too long, prompting some to respond, “ok, we get it”, but it’s inappropriate to dismiss the cause. Put simply, in a society that has claimed to be among the most sophisticated, most liberal-minded and multi-cultural in the world, we have all had enough of racism. Equally, it is clumsy and short-sighted for the media to say everyone jeering the dropped knee is a racist. Questions should be asked – so far, there’s been plenty of debate on TV and Radio about the jeering, but has anyone actually asked the fans what’s going on? We may find that some of the assumptions are wrong.

Photo: ALAMY

Is everyone ready for the full, uncensored fan experience?

AT the FA Cup final, Chelsea’s Ben Chilwell was jeered every time he touched the ball. In the stands, one press photographer caught site of some fans abusing Leicester players. Supporters have been celebrating and protesting, causing some civil disturbance, and some jeered the Black Lives Matter “taking the knee” on the final day of the Premier League. The broadcasters raised the volume of their studio folk and dulled the noise from the stadium to hide the spirit of indifference. 

Over the course of the last year, expletives have been followed by an apology – the lack of crowd noise has exposed just how much bad language there is in football. Non-league regulars have been exposed to it for decades.

Since March 2020, the football world has been in a sanitised bubble. How long before TV starts to issue viewer warnings before the game, cautioning that the event may contain language and sentiments from a different era?

The huge issue with jeering a gesture that represents the fight against racism is that whatever your reason for finding it disagreeable, you will be bracketed with racists. There’s no room at a football match for deep and meaningful discussion over principles, emotions and viewpoints – you will look like a racist to those around you. To a certain degree, the same applied to the way the public embraced Tom Moore, anything remotely resembling a question was shouted down and greeted with venomous reactions from the social media cognoscenti. In short, you were not allowed to disagree with the narrative.

Stand up if… 

Football fans are so engrossed in a game, so over-invested, that abusing opposition players defines their passion for their own club. Try and applause an opposition goal and see what happens.

Some fans base their entire ideology on hatred for their close rivals – in the Observer’s review of the 2020-21 season, there were a number of writers whose happiest moment was effectively schadenfreude directed towards the opposition they despise. Blind loyalty is a feature of being a loyal blue, red, gooner, Spur or hammer for many fans. It doesn’t always pay to have a constrasting view, or to think about what’s being presented before you. But only by questioning what you’re paying for will those selling the product pay 100% attention to the customer experience. 

Football is not a religion, no matter how many people try and tell you it is. It is certainly an escape valve and that’s why fans become vocal, foul-mouthed, abusive and tribal. No matter how sanitised the game becomes, how frightened people are to voice an opinion in society for fear of offending, being ostracised or marginalised, the reactionary behaviour that football inspires will always prevail. There are boundaries, and rightly so, but you cannot pretend it is not part of the game. No amount of fluffy mascots and community-orientated projects will ever entirely change that, it only tips the see-saw in the opposite direction to ensure clubs can portray a more genteel image to the broader public. Football is not X Factor, Eurovision or Strictly Come Dancing, even if it has become prime time TV.

All human life

It is possible pent-up emotions and frustration may lead to a period of over-exhuberance among fans, which will pass. Ironically, my last match before lockdown was at Salford City and there was a bit of an outbreak of old fashioned crowd trouble as a group of Bradford City fans infiltrated the Salford end. Although I don’t like to see it, the incident did make me smile a little. It wasn’t a big deal, but significant enough for a policeman to ask me to stop taking photos!

We saw when fans protested about the European Super League just how much they wanted to let their feelings known, there’s no telling how vocal or vicious they would have been if stadiums were full of owner-fatigued fans with the message, “support the team, not the regime”. 

There’s also been an occasion where the presence of a crowd has proved “too much” for a referee. We may have forgotten what the matchday used to include – certainly, some clubs who have enjoyed the influence of their home crowd have certainly not been as formidable in empty arenas.

We’re all looking forward to returning to stadiums to witness the good, the bad and the ugly, the undesirable and the delightful. It’s not a perfect environment, but quite frankly, is there any other experience to match it in the largely homogenous societies in which we live? All human life can be found in a football ground – are the media and local communities all over the nation ready for its return? 


Photo: ALAMY