FOOTBALL has long tolerated bad behaviour, indeed it has been ingrained in the culture of the sport for decades. Whether it is fans hurling racist chants at black players, skinheads trading punches or footballers displaying petty violence and petulance, football has invariably conceded that these things are “just part of the game”.
Eric Dier’s foolish but gallant attempt at showing that some things are unacceptable will undoubtedly end with the England defender being suspended, fined and maybe even saying goodbye to any more velvet caps from the Football Association. Dier may have stepped beyond the mark, his giant steps hurdling the seats at Tottenham’s excellent stadium, presenting a daunting image, but his reaction demonstrated that, once more, football is a reflection of the times we live in. As in other walks of life, prejudice, bigotry and intolerance are not being embraced by some segments of the younger generation. Gradually, in workplaces, sexism, homophobia and racism are being driven out, the much-derided financial industry has been ahead of many sectors of the community. Some clubs have been standard bearers for a more inclusive football world.
But others cling on to a sub-culture of ignorance and myopia. A few years ago, I witnessed outright racism at White Hart Lane for a game against Partizan Belgrade. I was shocked and reported to a steward that a middle-aged fan had confronted a young black Spurs fan and told him to “fuck off to Arsenal”. The steward laughed and shrugged his shoulders. At the FA Cup final between Chelsea and Liverpool in 2012, I sat next to a family who, for 90 minutes, abused Chelsea’s players, notably those that had played for Liverpool. The most vile comments didn’t come from the adults, they came from a little lad of no more than seven or eight. Fernando Torres was visibly horrified. It would be nice to think things have moved on, but listening to fans around the country this past season or two has proved that we have regressed, perhaps due to the toxic political environment that has seen anti-semitism and racism come to the fore.
On the same day that Dier slalomed his way towards the foul-mouthed fan, a young man was filmed urinating into a beer bottle on London’s Northern Line underground train. At just after midday. There are no excuses for such antics and hopefully, he will be found and prosecuted for indecency, but moral decay appears to be a trend that is pervading all quarters of daily life in Britain.
Why should it be tolerated? Dier made it clear that he was not putting up with the abuse and football, generally, should learn from this. There are too many fans who believe the football stadium is a forum for bad language, anti-social antics and a licence to abuse individuals. They claim a player is paid so much that he should be able to endure insults to him, his family or children and he has absolutely no right to react. Cowardly fans have hidden behind the anonymity that a big crowd has given them over the years, but with CCTV and ticket-only games, pinpointing the culprits should be easy.
Did Dier cross a line in entering the stand at Spurs? He certainly hadas more right to do that than any fan has in entering the field of play. Turning the other cheek is supposed to be the way to handle abuse, but these are different times. In the 1970s and 1980s, clubs erected fences to stop fans running across the pitch, the cynics would suggest the reintroduction of barriers can protect fans from the players!
Footballers are human beings, most are unremarkable as people. In other words, they are just like any person on the Clapham omnibus. Money does not make a person stronger mentally or make emotions any more robust. They deserve respect like anyone else.
Nobody has the right to behave badly just because they are inside a football stadium. It is time for clubs to really act against individuals and for the game’s governing bodies to discipline clubs that cannot control their audience. As for Dier, football’s culture demands he is penalised in some way, but whoever raps his knuckles should ask themselves what they would have done in the same circumstances.