Is football racist to its core? The author starts out having thought so, but his experience of a particular group of joyful fans makes him wonder whether an inclusive tribalism might not be possible - even desirable
I won’t be enjoying the football [soccer] this evening. Or any evening, really. And that’s not because my team is rubbish and gets nowhere. It’s that I’m just not a supporter. But maybe I should get over my squeamishness about fandom and try it one day.
I may not be interested in the football, but I’ve certainly for a while been interested by the football.
My suspicions of fandom come from a sense that following a team, rooting for it, is simply a ritual of atavistic attachment, of immersion of the self into a frenzied whole, that is probably just 2 stops short of the Nuremberg Rallies.
The BBC’s investigative reporting programme, Panorama seemed to confirm all my prejudices with a broadcast that coincided with the start of the European Championships, co-hosted by Ukraine and Poland, detailing the shocking behaviour of their neo-Nazi fans.
Then, when I got involved in producing and programming an IntelligenceSquared/ Versus/ Google debate on racism in football, my research again seemed to only validate my qualms. We decided on the debate motion of: "Balotelli is right - players should walk off the pitch if racially abused.Football has been too tolerant of racism"
Balotelli is right - players should walk off the pitch if racially abused.
Football has been too tolerant of racism
OK - somone with more knowledge about the game than I would surely be found to confront all those issues that were troubling me: the possibility that football fandom is intrinsically racist, that individuals on the inside have a duty to break the rules of the game to make this known, etc.
As my research progressed, the question of “What’s happened to the racist chanting in England?”, led to the common-place that racism directed at black players had basically disappeared from the English league. Conscious efforts throughout the last 20 years have made racial taunts a thing of the past.
“But then there’s Tottenham Hotspur,” said one of my sources. Whenever this team, from the North East of London, walks onto an “away” ground, it is, according to him, greeted with the chant of “Yiddos …. Yiiiii…dd’o’o’...s …. Yiddos” - a disparaging English slang for “Jews”. (Tottenham was traditionally a club of Jewish players and supporters - its roots were in the East End that in the first half of the 20th century was predominantly Jewish.)
Not only does this always happen, he told me, it is always airbrushed out in BBC footage of the games. Reporting on racism among football fans in Poland and Ukraine is investigative reporting for the BBC, while air-brushing the same from transmissions of the home game is good practice, it seems. (I can see the arguments for not giving the racists a platform … but it might have got a mention in the Panorama programme , if only to pre-empt something of a pot & kettle problem).
My functionalist model of football seemed to be getting comfortably confirmed:
• the game, whether club or international, is a bahuvrihi for the tribe - “England” both denotes the team, the nationality it is constituted of, and “England” also denotes what the team stands for - the nation
• the fans - on the sidelines of action, powerless spectators - are driven to paroxysms of sentiment as they identify with the fate of the totality. In defeat especially, the sentiment and the powerlessness compound into anger and grievance; in victory they turn into entitled, righteous, but undeserved superiority;
• threats of bans have made fans behave better in the past 20 years, but maybe that is really about effective repression rather than a deep transformation of the game
• no surprise, went my theory, that the crowd should demonstrate either triumphalist or scapegoating racism. The attachment to the totality was, I assumed, at some level the sort of exclusive, other-defined attachment that is the core of ethno-nationalism. So what might be a safe playground for those sentiments in some fans would inevitably bubble-over into their primitive, violent form for others.
Then came the debate itself.
[The Versus debate, uncut]
We’d assembled a stunning group - French-Guadeloupean footballer, Louis Saha, football writers Musa Okakwanga, Philippe Auclair and Antony Clavane, equality activist Femi Otitodju and Ukrainian author Andrey Kurkov … Here was a group of joyful, utterly anti-racist football lovers. Their debate simply took it for granted that there could be a non-exclusive, and certainly non-ethnic foundation of tribal attachment, that nothing made them inextricable companions.
Their implicit critique of my model was that those fans who do become racist are simply the ones who - unfortunately - do have an ethnicist conception of attachment; those who don’t are not simply repressing or somehow civilising it, they really have a different conception of meaningful identities - an elective tribalism that feels no need to demonise the other.
If that’s the case, then the beautiful game may indeed be that - a game that has the power to bring together (almost) all of humanity in a joyful expression of the competitive spirit. The metaphor of a multi-cutlural team coordinating superlative skill to work towards a socially defined goal and bringing along with them, in that endlessly repeated narrative, a cheering, engaged crowd. What more attractive and optimistic picture of how enlightened humanity and modern nations ought to conduct their affairs? So maybe I really should give fandom a go.
Maybe. And when the crowd starts chanting “Yiiiiid’o’o’”? A curio from a different age? Really?