How foot­ball turns fans from Jekyll to Hyde

Even seem­ingly sane peo­ple find eu­pho­ria in abus­ing their ri­vals

The Weekend Australian - - SPORT - MATTHEW SYED

A few years ago, I was in­vited to a game at White Hart Lane by a friend. I went to his house and we trav­elled on to the ground in a peo­ple car­rier. Along with my friend, there were four other Tot­ten­ham Hot­spur sup­port­ers. One was a teacher, I seem to re­mem­ber, and an­other a lawyer, and we chat­ted ami­ably en route.

Only as we came within sight of the sta­dium, and saw other fans walk­ing along the roads of north Lon­don, did three of my fel­low trav­ellers un­dergo what I can only de­scribe as a meta­mor­pho­sis. Their lan­guage be­came coarser. They be­gan to chant not merely about their sup­port for Spurs but their con­tempt for Chelsea. Their eyes had taken on a new gleam.

By the time we took our seats, they were in full voice, mak­ing ob­scene ges­tures to op­po­si­tion fans, and is­su­ing abu­sive com­ments that would have been in­con­ceiv­able just 30 min­utes ear­lier. They seemed like dif­fer­ent peo­ple. Let us call it fan-mor­pho­sis.

I was think­ing of all this in the con­text of a spate of re­cent scan­dals. Jake Liver­more, the West Bromwich Al­bion mid­fielder, clashed with a fan of West Ham United dur­ing the game be­tween the clubs last week. It is al­leged that the fan mocked the mid­fielder about his son, who died in 2014 when his part­ner went into labour. Liver­more had been so dev­as­tated that he spi­ralled into drugs and de­pres­sion.

A few days later, a story emerged about Dun­fermline Ath­letic mid­fielder Dean Shiels, who was abused by fans at a game against Falkirk. Shiels lost his eye in a do­mes­tic ac­ci­dent at the age of eight, and had it re­moved 12 years later. Falkirk fans threw fake eyes on to the pitch dur­ing the game and taunted him. Kenny Shiels, his fa­ther and the man­ager of Derry City, said that this was not un­com­mon. “It’s not just a few [sup­port­ers],” he said. “It’s not nice for a boy that’s mapped out a ca­reer in pro­fes­sional foot­ball. With his hand­i­cap, it is a fan­tas­tic achieve­ment.”

The idea that foot­ball has a prob­lem with fan cul­ture is hardly orig­i­nal. Any­one who has heard chant­ing in­volv­ing the Mu­nich air disas­ter, or the Hills­bor­ough tragedy, or the wrongly al­leged pae­dophilic ten­den­cies of a high-pro­file man­ager, will ac­knowl­edge that egre­gious be­hav­iour, while limited to a mi­nor­ity, is wide­spread. In­deed, TV di­rec­tors of­ten re­sist close-ups at throw-ins and cor­ners be­cause of the sheer num­ber of fans in the front rows who swear at the play­ers, faces con­torted, while mak­ing ob­scene ges­tures.

Yet why does foot­ball suf­fer with this kind of thug­gery? Why do per­fectly or­di­nary peo­ple seem to trans­mo­grify into snarling yobs within the prox­im­ity of a sta­dium? My grow­ing sense is that this is less to do with trib­al­ism per se, than with a kind of mass in­tox­i­ca­tion. For those who like to con­sider them­selves ul­tras, the ex­pres­sion of ha­tred on Satur­day has be­come their mind-al­ter­ing experience. They are not fans of foot­ball, but of the high as­so­ci­ated with in­tense, if tem­po­rary, loathing.

Con­sider Bill Bu­ford, an Amer­i­can au­thor who in­fil­trated English foot­ball in the 1980s. A time of hooli­gan­ism, per­haps the most ex­treme form of fan an­i­mos­ity. Bu­ford had sup­posed that these spasms of hos­til­ity were about turf wars, or lo­cal griev­ances. In the event, he found some­thing quite dif­fer­ent. “I had not ex­pected the vi­o­lence to be so plea­sur­able,” he wrote. “This is, if you like, the an­swer to the hun­dred-dol­lar ques­tion: why do young males riot? They do it for the same rea­son that an­other gen­er­a­tion drank too much, or smoked dope, or took hal­lu­cino­genic drugs, or be­haved re­bel­liously. Vi­o­lence is their an­ti­so­cial kick, their mind-al­ter­ing experience.”

Isn’t this the ba­sic ex­pla­na­tion, too, for the ex­pres­sions of mass ha­tred that we hear in and around stadiums? Take the re­li­gious an­i­mos­ity that so of­ten at­tends the Old Firm derby. Some have sug­gested that this re­flects gen­uine griev­ance, but this is hardly likely in a cos­mopoli­tan coun­try where few peo­ple care about re­li­gious de­nom­i­na­tions. As Paul Davis, a so­ci­ol­o­gist at the Univer­sity of Sun­der­land, has put it: “The vast ma­jor­ity of mod­ern-day Scots, in­clud­ing a de­ci­sive ma­jor­ity in the West, do not care or pre­tend to care about Catholics and Protes­tants, or Loy­al­ists and Rebels, any more than they care about the Great Pump­kin.”

No, this is not about sec­tar­i­an­ism, but fan-mor­pho­sis. It is about the drama of spite. For what bet­ter way for two sets of sup­port­ers to work them­selves up into a frenzy of ha­tred than to hark back to the bit­ter wounds of the past?

What bet­ter way to experience the an­ar­chic rush of abuse and loathing be­fore re­turn­ing to the con­straints of real life? As Lau­rence Mac­in­tyre, head of safety at Rangers, put it: “It is called a 90minute bigot, some­one who has got a friend of an op­po­site re­li­gion liv­ing next door. But for that 90 min­utes they shout foul re­li­gious abuse at each other.”

Sim­i­larly, I doubt those who hiss when con­fronting Spurs fans do so out of sup­port for the Holo­caust (the sound de­notes gas en­ter­ing ex­ter­mi­na­tion cham­bers such as Auschwitz).

No, this is about en­ter­ing a state of con­trived an­i­mos­ity, a way of mak­ing a slur so pro­fane that moral con­straints melt away in a mu­tual orgy of loathing. It is not ide­o­log­i­cal; it is hal­lu­cino­genic.

And this is why I sus­pect that if those who chant the most graphic in­sults at Arsene Wenger were to meet him out­side the sta­dium, they’d prob­a­bly ask for his au­to­graph. It is why if fans who chant the Mu­nich song were to meet the be­reaved fam­i­lies, they’d of­fer sym­pa­thy.

And it is why if the guys with whom I went to White Hart Lane were to bump into a ri­val fan at any other gath­er­ing, they’d be per­fectly am­i­ca­ble. It is only at foot­ball that they ex­press ha­tred, for that’s what the game, for a crit­i­cal mass of fans, de­mands.

It is worth em­pha­sis­ing, how­ever, that just be­cause this kind of be­hav­iour is typ­i­cally limited to stadiums, as well as the on­line fan fo­rums that in­creas­ingly op­er­ate as their dig­i­tal ex­ten­sion, it does not pro­vide mit­i­ga­tion.

But the au­thor­i­ties will only get to grips with a prob­lem that has long dis­torted the game if they di­ag­nose its un­der­ly­ing pathol­ogy. It is time to ad­mit that much of the abuse in foot­ball is not about trib­al­ism, or politics, or moral ni­hilism, or so­cial class. It is about an anti-so­cial, quasi-nar­cotic high.

What bet­ter way to experience the an­ar­chic rush of abuse and loathing be­fore re­turn­ing to the con­straints of real life?

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.