The Jewish Chronicle
Jonny Gould: Hate and the beautiful game
The racism row at Aston Villa is ugly evidence of how football has been hijacked by politics
LAST WEEK, the JC put a story about an email I sent to Aston Villa about racist abuse on Facebook on the front page. “Aston Villa Pesach message bombarded with antisemitic comments” referred to a post I had reacted to, which Villa posted to Jewish fans. It was a cheery claret and blue “Happy Passover” graphic, which in turn prompted a torrent of digital Jew hate.
As director of the Aston Villa Supporters’ Trust, I urged the club by email to react to the 27,000 bilious memes and emojis, which to this day still trail underneath. I asked Villa to reject the abuse, reaffirm their adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism and not be deterred from wishing Jews “Happy Holidays” in the future.
They swiftly posted a statement deploring religious intolerance.
The analytics of the hate-fest pointed mostly to the Middle East, attracted to Villa by our two Egyptian players. One of them, Mahmoud Hassan “Trezeguet”, has more Twitter followers than Villa. Our club’s co-owner Nassef Sawiris, an Egyptian Christian, was accused by the trolls of Zionist support.
The irony of my cri de coeur to lead us from oppression to higher ground at Pesach wasn’t lost on me.
I’ve spoken to two lawyers in this area and they believe the posts were added automatically that there weren’t 27,000 different haters but a system which delivers abuse by machine. Thousands of identifiable Villa fans also replied, horrified by what they were reading.
I’ve had many kind personal messages of support from Villa fans all week.
Unfortunately, there’s also a vocal minority of our fans who don’t like me. Not because I was born in Birmingham City Centre, nor that I’ve supported Villa for 42 years, nor even that I started my radio career on BBC and independent radio in the West Midlands.
No, they don’t like me because…well, you know why. Perhaps even more fundamentally, they wouldn’t like me whatever my background was because I, like many others, stood up to Jeremy Corbyn and the assorted ideologies his supporters espouse.
And one of those is problematic indeed. Anti-racism used to mean simply being against racism. But now there’s a yawning vacuum between the two. The term anti-racism is transforming to become cover for some forms of racism, including antisemitism, and I have become a target of anti-racists for my role in Villa’s community.
Football is being hijacked by politics. Like many pastimes, the Beautiful Game used to exist outside those realms.
At the Champions League Final at Wembley in 2011, I stood aghast as Barcelona fans used the showpiece as a platform for Catalonian independence. They unfurled a massive red and yellow banner for a willing TV camera crew on Wembley Way.
English football fans stare at the snarling sectarian wickedness of Glasgow’s Old Firm derby thankful there’s no religious lines drawn in English cities, despite similar social histories in Liverpool, Birmingham and others. Diversity and inclusion are being used to mean the complete opposite. In the continuing pursuit of the perfect society, woe betide anyone who disagrees with or finds holes in the arguments of Corbyn’s followers. And when identity politics is injected into football’s body politic, it supercharges division between fans.
The camaraderie of supporting the same club, whatever your creed, is broken. For disruptive elements, wearing your club colours is no longer a unifying identity.
Of course, being a blue, a Gooner or a Red has appeal for Jewish fans as a way to be part of wider society. But now you’ve got to follow a certain groupthink (trivialised and simplified by marketing slogans), or endure calls of “you’re a racist” or “the worst kind of Zionist” as I have along the way.
So in the Year of the Empty Stadia, these often commercial partnerships espouse all kinds of intensive messaging and bash viewers over the head without fan resistance.
But there is good news. In this multichannel world, you can support your team any way you want, in your lounge in Loughton or sofa in Sydney.
Surround yourself with small WhatsApp groups of fellow supporters of a like mind and you need never encounter the reality.
Or sit there in the freezing cold and take the periodic antisemitic chants from opposition fans, while clubs “zero tolerate” what you’ve just heard and think they’ve dealt with it.
I’ll always love football. There is culture and richness in the memories I collected through the years. But it didn’t soar to worldwide popularity inside the reign of Queen Victoria like this.
It’s time football just concentrated on the 90 minutes.