The Grey Neutral: Knees, Qatar and jobs

THERE’S no doubt the scenes witnessed in Budapest at the Hungary v England game were unacceptable and the outrage was warranted. But let’s think about this, can England look itself in the eye and claim racism isn’t a problem in the UK? No, absolutely not, which is why English footballers are taking the knee at every available opportunity – notably week-by-week in the domestic football. Not everyone agrees with the action, though. Rod Liddle, writing in the Times, said if England want to take an anti-racist stand, they should not go to the World Cup in Qatar. Liddle refers to the knee gesture as corporate virtue gesturing, and adds:  “The notion – advanced by some – that if you don’t take the knee, you’re a racist, is as obnoxious as it is inaccurate”. Interestingly, it is noticeable the TV and media seems to play down the amount of jeering that takes place at some grounds. Liddle goes further by claiming that if “England players really do mean something by that gesture, then how on earth are they going to take part in the World Cup finals?.” He points out there is perhaps no country on earth where people of colour get a rougher deal than in Qatar. The proper response is to refuse to attend, he says. We know that will not happen as football has a habit of shelving its morals when it is convenient to do so.

The sportswashing World Cup

They say that the world has enough oil for 50 years, so the future of oil rich states will be under threat at some point. The World Cup is part of a project that aims to reduce Qatar’s dependence on oil and diversify its economy. The cynics might suggest that Qatar are merely “sportswashing”, which effectively cleanses the country’s reputation and covers-up a whole catalogue of sins, such as human and LGBTG rights. This practice has been going on for decades – you can go back to the 1936 Olympics for an early example of how a regime uses sport to try and improve its image. Although lots of undesirable things were covered up in the Berlin games, nobody was completely fooled. And then there was the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, which was going to be played against a very bleak background. Moscow 2018 was supposed to be similar but somehow, Russia pulled it off. We know too much about Qatar, and we don’t know enough, but the fact remains, this is an unsuitable venue.

Ban them – it’s simple

Returning to the subject of racism and those Hungarian fans. While punishments from UEFA and FIFA seem to be quite toothless, perhaps it is time for countries to boycott or introduce sanctions against countries that are unwelcoming to their teams and fans. Banning countries from the World Cup and European Championship, as well as club competitions, would surely be far more effective. It is time to get tough rather than showing disapproval through very benign gestures. Conversely, Refusing to play an opponent that harbours racists, bigots and right-wing thugs would send a very strong message.

Jobs for the boys

Being a Premier League manager is a perilous job. Expectations are high and mostly unrealistic. How many Premier League managers have won silverware of any kind when managing an English club? The answer is just six: Mikel Arteta, Rafa Benitez, Thomas Tuchel, Brendan Rodgers, Jürgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola. Who has the best win rate among Premier managers? Guardiola with 73.13% before the season started. The longest serving manager in the top flight is Sean Dyche (36.8% win rate), who took over Burnley in 2012. On the subject of win rates, Mikel Arteta, the current holder of the “one defeat and he’s out” trophy, has won 51.1% of games since he took on the Arsenal job. The Gunners face Norwich at home next, the latest vital game in Arteta’s short managerial career.

Other games to watch this week: Leipzig v Bayern; Napoli v Juve; Sporting v Porto, Leeds v Liverpool; Hearts v Hibs, Marseille v Saint-Etienne.

Photo: Doha Stadium Plus Qatar, via Flickr CC-BY-2.0

Hungarian football needs to learn from history

NOBODY SHOULD be too surprised by the behaviour of some Hungary fans in Budapest, it has been experienced before and the country has a right-wing, very nationalist government that has been in office for 11 years. The ingredients are there for problems.

It is incredible that, in the 21st century, people are defending the actions of some supporters, claiming England are merely making political propaganda out of a sports event. If the Hungarians are happy to see their country portrayed as being totally out of step with modern thinking, then so be it, but their international image will continue to be tarnished while they tolerate racism and bigotry.

England were jeered for taking the knee, a gesture that may have run its course in some respects, but it would be more appropriate to have stopped the game and taken the knee, or even demonstrated after the game to show the Hungarian fans that England had not been phased by the torrent of abuse and debris thrown their way.

It’s a great shame that in a stadium that bears the name of one of the most loved players in world football, Ferenc Puskas, should play host to such unacceptable behaviour. Budapest is a great city and Hungary has a rich footballing heritage, but somehow, the problems that once existed throughout Europe manage to linger on. That’s not to say England, for example, do not have similar problems, because we all know that racism remains in the game – hence the gesture being made by players over the past year or so.

When the pandemic prevented fans from attending games, the belief that football without the fans is a much diluted product seemed a very true assessment of the situation. But in truth, where you have large crowds, you have a diverse range of emotions and beliefs. For every good aspect of spectator sport, there are unpleasant and anti-social elements. In other words, nobody should be fooled into thinking that football crowds are sedate, all-loving vast bodies of people because they are not. The bigger the crowd, the more likely you will hear things you don’t particularly want to hear.

FIFA should punish Hungary for the behaviour of their fans, but this will not make the problem go away. You have to ask yourself why do they do this, why do they jeer black footballers? Hungary itself has suffered from bigotry, racism and anti-semitism in the past – some 500,000 Hungarian Jews died during the second world war. The Hungarian government should do something, but given their political philosophy, is that going to happen?

During Euro 2020, Hungarian fans wore black shirts as they protested about players taking the knee and there were also homophobic banners in the Puskas Arena. Hungary were ordered to play two games behind closed doors as a punishment. Hungary’s foreign minister called UEFA’s decision “pitiful and cowardly”.

While punishments from UEFA and FIFA seem to be quite toothless, perhaps it is time for countries to boycott or introduce sanctions against countries that are unwelcoming to their teams and fans. Banning countries from the World Cup and European Championship, as well as club competitions, would be far more effective. It is 2021, after all. History should have taught us something.

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