Ea­monn Sweeney

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - FRONT PAGE - EA­MONN SWEENEY

The ‘sure it was only a joke’ de­fence doesn’t re­ally cut it here. This was an his­toric mo­ment be­cause it was the first time a women’s Bal­lon D’Or had been awarded.

THE 1970s were des­per­ate, weren’t they? Ba­nanas be­ing thrown at foot­ballers, co­me­di­ans mak­ing sex­ist re­marks at awards cer­e­monies, foot­ball man­agers aim­ing jibes at gay peo­ple. Thank God we’ve got away from all that stuff. Hang on. My mis­take. These par­tic­u­lar in­ci­dents didn’t hap­pen in the ’70s. They hap­pened last week.

There’s a par­tic­u­larly pop­u­lar piece be­ing writ­ten at the mo­ment (it’s ba­si­cally the same ar­ti­cle be­ing rewrit­ten by dif­fer­ent peo­ple) about how Political Cor­rect­ness has gone mad this weather. These days we’re ap­par­ently liv­ing un­der the jack­booted tyranny of the So­cial Jus­tice War­rior.

Maybe there was racism and sex­ism and ho­mo­pho­bia in the past, the writer will ad­mit, but they’re long gone and now the pen­du­lum has swung too far in the other di­rec­tion. Sure you can say noth­ing these days. Ev­ery­one’s a lib­eral now.

It is, as they say, a point of view. Just not much of one. This idea of a so­ci­ety where sex­ism, racism and ho­mo­pho­bia have been so com­pre­hen­sively erad­i­cated they don’t even need to be tack­led any­more doesn’t have any con­nec­tion with re­al­ity. And ex­press­ing nos­tal­gia for the days ‘when you could say what­ever you wanted’ is at best mis­guided and in many cases mis­chievous.

When a ba­nana skin was thrown at Pierre-Em­er­ick Aubameyang as the player took a penalty for Arse­nal against Spurs it was a chill­ing re­minder of a time when this kind of thing rou­tinely hap­pened to black play­ers.

Back in that hal­cyon era ‘be­ing able to say what­ever you wanted’ in­cluded be­ing able to join your fel­low sup­port­ers in per­form­ing mon­key chants when a black player got the ball. You could hear it on

I saw it at first hand, aimed at Derry City’s Nel­son Da Silva and Owen Da Gama when they played in The Show­grounds in Sligo.

Things have im­proved but in­ci­dents like the one at the Emi­rates show there’s no room for com­pla­cency. The anti-dis­crim­i­na­tion foot­ball body Kick It Out says that racist in­ci­dents at grounds are on the rise. “That ba­nana was not some kind of message from the 1970s, it very much be­longs to the cli­mate we live in to­day,” says the or­gan­i­sa­tion’s chair­man Her­man Ouse­ley.

Soc­cer has a re­mark­able propen­sity for gen­er­at­ing the kind of hate­ful in­ci­dents which are rare in other sports. A quick glance at last week’s papers tells us that Manch­ester United are be­ing forced to put up net­ting to pro­tect sup­port­ers in their dis­abled sec­tion who have been hit by smoke bombs, coins and urine-filled bot­tles thrown by vis­it­ing fans.

Mean­while 11 men, rang­ing in ages from 18 to 61, were ar­rested fol­low­ing vi­o­lent scenes dur­ing a match be­tween Port Vale and Stoke City in the Check­a­trade Tro­phy (No, me nei­ther.) Stoke fans broke seats, toi­lets and win­dows in the away sec­tion at Vale Park. Well, it was The Pot­ter­ies derby af­ter all.

The Beau­ti­ful Game at­tracts The Ugli­est Fans. We con­stantly see be­hav­iour at grounds and on so­cial me­dia which would seem ab­nor­mal in any other walk of life but is seen as just an­other part of foot­ball’s rich ta­pes­try. There’s an idea that soc­cer is a place where all old style ma­cho be­hav­iour de­notes a kind of work­ing class au­then­tic­ity.

This idea of soc­cer as the last re­doubt of your tra­di­tional man­li­ness prob­a­bly ac­counted for Mar­tin Solveig’s lam­en­ta­ble be­hav­iour at the Bal­lon d’Or awards. As the world and her hus­band knows by now the host asked the win­ner of the women’s award Ada Hegerberg if she knew how to twerk. For the high court judges among you, the twerk is a dance which in­volves shak­ing your arse like a hen about to lay an egg.

The ‘sure it was only a joke’ de­fence doesn’t re­ally cut it here. This was an his­toric mo­ment be­cause it was the first time a women’s Bal­lon d’Or had been awarded. Yet Solveig’s com­ment es­sen­tially be­lit­tled Hegerberg’s achieve­ment. The 23-year-old Nor­we­gian striker won the Cham­pi­ons League this year with Lyon, scor­ing a record 15 goals in the process. She’s scored 120 goals in 95 games for Lyon and 38 in 66 in­ter­na­tion­als for Nor­way.

There’s a mag­nif­i­cent YouTube video of her in ac­tion which looks like a study of all the dif­fer­ent ways goals can be scored. Hegerberg drives a shot into the top cor­ner from 30 yards, drives one into the bot­tom cor­ner from 20, soars high to thump a header past the goal­keeper from the cen­tre of the box, dives to score at the far post, flicks one in at the near post, takes the ball on from half-way to score, stabs home a re­bound, rounds a cou­ple of de­fend­ers, gets be­tween a cou­ple of de­fend­ers, scores on the vol­ley, on the half-vol­ley, on the run.

She has the abil­i­ties com­mon to all great goalscor­ers of ap­par­ently an­tic­i­pat­ing what is go­ing to hap­pen next, of find­ing space and of ut­ter econ­omy of ef­fort, never tak­ing two touches in­side the box when one will do. The award was an op­por­tu­nity for a world au­di­ence to pay at­ten­tion to this won­der­ful player but in­stead the fo­cus has been on Solveig’s com­ments.

I’d be sur­prised to see an award to a sportswoman of any stripe in this coun­try be­ing ac­com­pa­nied by such guff. You’d hope we have more sense. Be­cause what the con­tro­versy does show is that ‘Political In­cor­rect­ness’ of­ten just in­volves some­one not hav­ing the man­ners to avoid be­hav­ing like a pig.

The ap­pro­pri­ately named Wally Downes also fan­cies him­self as a bit of a co­me­dian. Back in Septem­ber he tweeted, “Oh yippee . . . Gay sex is now le­gal in In­dia!!! I’m on my way next week, 1.4 bil­lion all in . . . so 700 mil­lion fel­las!!! And me be­ing the first gay icon for LGBT foot­balling com­mu­nity . . . I’m gonna be swamped!!! #Rain­bowLacesTur­bans.” Now that Downes has been ap­pointed man­ager of AFC Wim­ble­don the tweet has at­tracted a cer­tain amount of at­ten­tion.

Again, there’ ll be peo­ple who won­der what harm Downes did. But the idea that gay peo­ple are es­sen­tially laugh­able has a long and ig­no­ble his­tory. It’s led to a sit­u­a­tion where, as a sur­vey by Dr John E Goldring of Manch­ester Met­ro­pol­i­tan Univer­sity has shown, 63 per cent of gay foot­ball fans have ex­pe­ri­enced ho­mo­pho­bic chant­ing at matches. Hud­der­s­field Town’s fans, who were es­pe­cially abu­sive against James McClean last sea­son, have this sea­son dis­graced them­selves again by aim­ing ho­mo­pho­bic abuse at Brighton which was de­scribed as “pure evil” by those at the re­ceiv­ing end.

The Rain­bow Laces cam­paign by the LGBT or­gan­i­sa­tion Stonewall is an at­tempt to fight ho­mo­pho­bia in sport. In mock­ing it Downes is giv­ing com­fort to those who’d pre­fer these things didn’t hap­pen. But as the re­cent as­sault on Gareth Thomas showed, ho­mo­pho­bia has con­se­quences. Jibes and slurs cre­ate a cli­mate which em­bold­ens peo­ple who phys­i­cally at­tack those they re­gard as de­viants or in­fe­ri­ors.

It’s easy enough for a colum­nist to bang on about ‘free speech’ in an ab­stract way. But at a time when ho­mo­pho­bic bul­ly­ing still goes on in our schools I’d per­son­ally be more wor­ried about the feel­ings of the kids tar­geted than about some mid­dle-aged lad’s no­tion that it’s a sad day when you can’t in­sult who you want.

So­ci­ety is grad­u­ally pro­gress­ing in the right di­rec­tion. It was deeply mov­ing to see the French rugby team dis­play sol­i­dar­ity with Thomas by wear­ing rain­bow laces. There are gay sup­port­ers’ groups at many English foot­ball clubs with that of Spurs win­ning this year’s Fans For Di­ver­sity Award. And over the past week Pre­mier League clubs joined in the Rain­bow Laces cam­paign.

On Wed­nes­day night Wat­ford turned a stand into a rain­bow coloured mosaic be­fore their game against Manch­ester City. This seemed par­tic­u­larly apt given the amount El­ton John did for that club as chair­man dur­ing their great years in the 1970s and ’80s. Af­ter the rock star was outed by he suf­fered hor­ren­dous ho­mo­pho­bic abuse at games. Who’d have thought then that in 2014 Wat­ford would ac­tu­ally name one of their stands af­ter him? It was, said El­ton, one of the great­est days of his life.

That things are get­ting bet­ter is what re­ally wor­ries the big­ots. When they say ‘you can’t say what you want any­more’ what they re­ally mean is that they can’t go on with their old non­sense any­more with­out be­ing chal­lenged.

They have to be chal­lenged. Be­cause if they’re not, we’re go­ing along with the idea that sport, and soc­cer in par­tic­u­lar, doesn’t have to move on with the rest of so­ci­ety.

Why would we ever want to do that?

That things are get­ting bet­ter is what wor­ries the big­ots

Eric Dier of Tot­ten­ham Hot­spur wear­ing rain­bow laces dur­ing the Pre­mier League match against Southamp­ton on Wed­nes­day

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