Gosh, I am amazed as a long-time Tottenham fan to find my club embroiled in the controversy over race in English football. This turn of events is ironical as some 50 years ago, I abandoned my boyhood allegiance to Glasgow Rangers - begun when I lived in Clydebank - after being disgusted by the club’s sectarian stance and the vile chants of its supporters at a European match against Tottenham Hotspur. I switched my loyalty at once to the Spurs, inspired by their beautiful football that night and the leadership of the great Danny Blanchflower who once said, “The great fallacy is that the game is first and last about winning. It is nothing of the kind. The game is about glory, it is about doing things in style and with a flourish . . . ”
Now it seems that the Society of Black Lawyers (SBL) are objecting to the Tottenham fans’ chants of “Yiddoes, Yiddoes”, which are, let’s be straight about it, also at times a violent war cry of “the Yid army”. Peter Herbert, who chairs the legal group, says that he will report the fans to the Metropolitan Police if no action taken this week to stop the chanting. Herbert said: “If the fans wish to continue, if Tottenham wishes to continue, then we will use every means at our disposal to make sure they do get the message which many in the Jewish community have already told us is unacceptable.”
In the Guardian (10 November), David Baddiel has also chosen to interpret the “semiotic” behind the chant as: "We are so proud of being Spurs fans, we’ll even embrace being called Yids of all things, if it identifies us with the club.” David Lister, a Jewish Spurs supporter at once took issue with Baddiel, explaining that Spurs fans have long been subjected to chants of “Yiddoes” by supporters of other London clubs: he thinks because of the proximity of the Spurs ground, I was always told it was because the former Tottenham board was predominantly Jewish. Whatever, his semiotic is, Spurs fans decided not to ignore this nor to retaliate in kind, but to say effectively: “OK, if you want to call us that, we will take on the identity of Jews and support and acclaim our team using the above expression and variants of it”.
Joel Samuels, another Jewish Spurs fan, responded that it had always been a badge of “immense pride to hear 35,000 people at White Hart Lane proudly use an otherwise offensive term as a badge of honour. I feel this most when Chelsea or West Ham fans are visiting and persist in hissing ‘the sound of the gas chambers’ – to which we respond by uniting under the term Yid Army, i.e., we’re proud to have Jewish fans, unlike you.”
I have to admit that I have always uncritically – and sentimentally – taken a broadly similar view. A sense of solidarity is one of the great pleasures of being a football fan and it is often enough spoiled by the conduct of your fellow fans, not to mention the disgusting chants at other grounds, celebrating for example the Munich air disaster that struck a great Manchester Utd team or the Hillsborough disaster. So I have taken some pride too in fans’ “Yiddoe” chants.
I cannot wholly identify with them however. Rather than a deep commitment to the embrace of Jewish identity, the chants are no doubt more an imaginative renunciation of the rival fans’ cries as well as of their bigotry. I remember well the Tottenham fans at the time of Falkland war - when Tottenham had two Argentinian football stars – singing, “Don’t cry for me Argentina” in their superficial assumption of support for them rather than, like me, in opposition to the war. Worse still, in Ireland, ironically for me Tottenham fans taunt local fans by taking on the sectarian traditions of my old team’s fans.
Of course, the term has an especially ugly history as many Jewish people will be painfully aware; and the fact that most of the fans are quite unaware of this doesn’t lessen the pain. Yet what does the SBL hope to achieve by stirring up controversy over the chants? Tottenham responded to the SBL’s initial call on Wednesday by saying “real anti-Semitic abuse, such as hissing to simulate the noise of gas chambers, is the real evil and the real offence”. The club argues that the guiding legal position is the intent behind the chants which it regards “as a defence mechanism in order to own the term and thereby deflect anti-Semitic abuse.” Certainly there is little to justify any idea that the chants are racially aggravated and motivated by racial hostility.
There is a real danger here that legal action could alienate Tottenham fans who are overwhelmingly not racist, as the warm response of the crowd to the return of the black footballer, Fabric Muamba, who collapsed and almost died at White Hart Lane, showed two weeks ago. There are surely enough examples of genuine anti-semitism and racism in Britain and internationally still to take issue with without turning on chants which are clearly not intentionally anti-semitic. There are also issues other than racism that football and British society have to address, like homophobia and misogyny. In all the fuss over the Terry case, it is scarcely remarked that Terry, in supposedly “repeating” to Ferdinand the words he believed had been addressed to him, explained that he thought the exchange involved “normal football verbals”, notably the extensive use of the word “cunt”. This is a word that is almost always represented by its first initial, ‘c ...’ It is ‘owned’ in its entirety however by professional footballers as a unique insult.