"I hate all sports as rabidly as a person who likes sports hates common sense."
"The mob man, functioning as citizen, gets a feeling that he is really important to the world - that he is genuinely running things. Out of his maudlin herding after rogues and mountebanks there comes to him a sense of vast and mysterious power -which is what makes archbishops, police sergeants, the grand goblins of the Ku Klux and other such magnificoes happy."
H. L. MENCKEN (1880-1956).
A fans riot at West Ham in the third week of this season has once again raised the evil and tiresome spectres of hatred, chauvinism and organized hooliganism in football: One man stabbed, dozens injured, and endless video scenes of mob action. On a much less serious level we then had the dismal televised spectacle of a few Evertonians fighting amongst themselves at the match in Olomouc, as if our start to the season hasn't caused us enough problems at the more "mundane" level of athletic competition. But there won't be many amongst the overwhelming majority of decent fans everywhere who looked at those horrible scenes without thinking, "Here we go again............What is football FOR? What's the point? Why bother?" Those who actively dislike the game have been provided with yet more reason to reinforce their contempt. In fact it was all too predictable despite many seasons of relative freedom from the curse.
It also cast my mind back to a related but unthreatening moment late last season, which I'll come to in due course. The reality is of course the aforementioned horror never really went away. All honest fans know it has been simmering beneath the surface for years. Only extreme authoritarian police control methods have stopped a full re-emergence of organised thuggery and mass brawls. Anyone who thinks otherwise is deluding themselves. The madness is still there in different forms and intensities.
Meantime, imagine if you will an alien traversing our unimportant galaxy via our obscure solar system. It stops at the only planet with obvious life signs, ours. Close observation shows the dominant animal life form is self-styled Homo sapiens. The most popular leisure pastime of the species is a game between two teams of eleven who pursue a sphere filled with constituents of the planet atmosphere. There are those who play and administer the sport and those who just watch. Bizarrely, some of those who watch sometimes try to transfer their own neuroses and failings onto the players and administrators. This leads occasionally to psychological and social disorder. On occasions it even causes death. Logically, you could forgive the alien for assuming the species to be a deeply superstitious, neurotic strain of mammal with much evolution ahead of it. You could understand the alien decision, "I have better things to do with my life span. I'm getting off," before doing precisely that to the sanity of Planet Zog in Spiral Nebula 3XZ9ß?.
In addition, with all that in mind what do you make of the shooting murder of a visiting Naçional fan and the dumping of his body during an Estudiantes V Naçional Copa de Libertadores match in Argentina some weeks ago? Or the 14 years old boy and 42 years old man, Tottenham supporters both, convicted at Hampshire magistrates court of racist and homophobic hounding of Sol Campbell at Fratton Park, and banned from football matches for three years, fined and ordered to pay costs? Or the 29 years old Kenyan in distant Africa who hung himself after Arsenal lost to Manchester United in the Champions League? Or the Everton fans that attacked and stabbed two Liverpool fans after they apparently goaded the Evertonians after the Cup Final? (And if the latter wasn't bad enough you could hear some local pub peons say things like, "They had it coming.") Then there's the religious sectarian insanity that is Rangers V Celtic and the nationalist hatred that is Barcelona V Real Madrid. And what is more ludicrous than "Scousers V Mancs," that perennial peasants' soap-opera of two bald men fighting over a comb? What is it in human nature that causes some people to become literally crazy over a game of football? Or at a lower level that they become so neurotic they should have psychiatric counselling?
Sensible football fans know such people exist at all football clubs. All too often the culprits hide behind a charade of "banter," just one more badly misused word in the tedious lexicon of football jargon. On a wider scale they exist in other sports too. Football is the world's most popular sport so it will always appear to have more of them. But what to think about the worst aspects? Is it something in the game or is it in the mental inadequacy of the culprits? Or does it have wider roots in a demoralised society? What can football fans do to rid the game of seemingly perpetual mental and physical mayhem? Sadly for those who seek a solution, there are a number of causes and not all of them are football-related. This is why politicians introduced draconian policing when patience ran out. Plainly, enough was enough. No civilised society could long tolerate the kind of brutal mob ignorance that attended too many matches. However, this merely treated the symptoms, not the root causes. They remain untreated, which means the symptoms will keep re-appearing like an uncured cancer.
Because, like it or not (irony intended), hate is a constituent emotion of human behaviour. The evolution of our species is saddled with it. Uncontained, it can and does cause the most extreme physical and psychological damage. Everybody suffers from its affects at some time. Nobody knows why it exists, though there are as many guesses as there are behavioural theses on the subject. Intelligent men and women admit as much, while artists usually merely try to show us the horrific results. Therefore, football and all its assets and faults are merely one element of individual and mass human behaviour. In the end it is necessary in a democratic society to achieve consensus before making laws to deal with its unwelcome developments.
When all of these cultural factors come together the result can be melodramatic art. For instance Arthur C. Clarke guessed at its origins in his seminal work 2001 (1968) and an earlier short story The Sentinel (1951). Stanley Kubrick made an outstanding film of it, as he did with Anthony Burgess's 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange. The American author James Jones has one of his central characters, "private Witt," in his 1962 book The Thin Red Line, witness Second World War battlefield carnage at Guadalcanal and ask, "Where does all this evil come from?......What are its roots?" In the film Shirley Valentine, the main character asks, "Why are we given all these feelings?" Goya's illustrations of the cruelty of the French occupation of his country are unforgettable, though you won't find them reflected in French history accounts of La Gloire. Spielberg's film Schindler's List is a masterpiece of the genre. Football has a number of films and books showing the insanity of organized hooliganism and its sheer rottenness and group cowardice. There are many other examples of our worst emotion dating back to the start of recorded history. The subject and its attendant bafflement are universal. We are stuck with them. Your guess of the origin is at least as good as anyone else's.
Instinctively you want to treat the issue with defensive whimsy but unfortunately, if you do, history shows all too often the first casualty is reality and civilised understanding. There are all-too-many examples of football hatred causing all-too-real problems and even death. All of which means there are times, though you love the game, when you shake your head and wonder how you ever got into this footy-supporter stuff with its accompanying wild neuroses, thuggishness and odd or twisted personalities. At such times you either recognize it as a reasonable pause for thought or you stop using the game as a hobby. You vaguely understand it and stay, or you move on to other things and dismiss football as a past aberration. I encountered such a moment toward the end of last football season after our loss at Portsmouth. Not as a result of the defeat - which wasn't unexpected - but because of the aftermath described below. However, on this occasion the feeling was gone as quickly as it arrived. After all, we have been here before.
As a preliminary, the week before our match one Wayne Rooney told the Manchester United website he hated Liverpool Football Club. After a short, slightly apologetic bluster from The Hairdryer himself the piece was pulled and it quickly disappeared from mainstream media too. A few days later the Mancs were soundly beaten 4-1 at home by the team Wayne said he hated. If that didn't teach the young man a valuable lesson he's probably beyond teaching. But then he's not on his own. The game is riddled with such poison, always has been and probably always will be. There's nothing new about it. It applies to all competitive sports, no exceptions.
What the episode illustrated was how the word "hate" gets bandied around so easily it has acquired the same sort of cachet acned adolescents get from casual American mangling of our language. The worst transatlantic extremes of it excuse the impact of murderous violence and infiltrate common usage - phrases like "blown away," "wet job" and "sleeping with the fishes" all help avoid normal, sensitive revulsion. It becomes easy to give in and go along with the verbal laziness. So it is with the word "hate" in footy, albeit a tiny bit higher on the evolutionary scale. In many cases it is merely a bolt-hole for the mentally inadequate or the uneducated. But occasionally you will find someone who really means it. You will find the worst examples on footy radio phone-ins and website forums. Quite often they spill over from wannabee managers or players into neurotic lonely or wishful control freakery and even psychosis. At which point they become a project for Module One Psychiatry or Anthropology. Ultimately, repetition of the word makes it as banal and stupid as juvenile "street" jargon, which is known without a trace of humour as "street cred." (Actually, the supreme irony is it has no credibility at all. It is outright nonsense.) The problem is it can make acceptable what is ugly and therefore much easier for callow youth and lazy adults to ape. It feeds off its own absurdity in the manner of two affectionate drunks swearing undying loyalty to each other. Weak personalities succumb to it merely to be part of a crowd or a mob clustered in a bar or on a street corner or in an internet forum. In no time at all it can form into a weird "sub-culture" of eclectic absurdity or masochistic misery. Such people are incapable of simply relishing a healthy hobby like football, let alone the good things in life.
So to my direct example: After a day's work I was driving home from the studio after our match at Portsmouth and turned on the radio to get the result. We had lost 2-1 and not performed well, apparently. I found myself listening to the middle of a local football phone-in. Normally I would turn the thing off quick as you could say, "Gaggle of knobheads and crackpots" in street language, or even "Klutz of gunsels" in street Yiddish, but this time I didn't. Maybe I was too tired after a long day. Maybe I was merely interested in the anthropological moment. Whatever it was, I listened with growing incredulity to a tidal wave of what can only be called undiluted, hate-filled FM sewage sluicing through the air waves. Everyone, it seemed, was to "blame," from the players to Steve Round to David Moyes to Bill Kenwright to Robert Elstone to Ian Ross to the street workers who clear post-match traditional and historical greasy chip wrappers, beer bottles and broken glasses from litter strewn streets around Goodison Park. I haven't heard such a mélange of twisted, self-pitying whingeing and moaning in many a year. Small wonder our tiny minority of permanent malcontents has earned the title of the worst self-pitying whiners in the entire Premier League, leaving even Aston Villa and Spurs fans trailing in their wake. Not one of the phone-wielding dullards was capable of accepting the quite ordinary fact of losing a football match. It's a safe bet many websites and forums were a replica. It's a safe bet too the same thing has been repeated after our horrendous start to this season. And that's one of the more obvious traits in these cretins - their dreary predictability. As I said, every club has them. When things go wrong you can guarantee the same old malcontent hogwash will be nuzzled in the same malcontent trough by the same malcontent hogs. It seems to be an immutable law that they NEVER learn.
Thus it is one of the minor breeding grounds of the vile scenes witnessed at West Ham. Once that kind of mentality has been nurtured why be surprised when it eventually and inevitably manifests itself in corporeal form somewhere? Some of the maniacs who act out these scenes are making physical the neurotic thoughts and behaviour of the phone-in and internet plebes. If you create that kind of atmosphere, don't be surprised when impressionable youth or easily led, stupid adults breathe it in and then behave accordingly. As we know to our sorrow and cost eventually it morphs into organised gangs of inadequate morons. While I thoroughly detest totalitarian police crowd control methods (one of the reasons I limit visits to away matches these days) they are completely understandable in the context of our times. Without the police there is no question in my mind there would be a full blown return - perhaps much worse - to the unlamented days of cowardly mobs attacking anybody they didn't like, even their own fans. It is only a few years since we had one such sickening episode of our own in Everton Valley, when there was a pre-arranged riot between Everton fans and Manchester United fans. In these circumstances it is the height of hypocrisy for those who help manufacture hatred in the first place to deplore the logical conclusion of their own actions.
The truth is that whatever the social conditions underpinning much of this evil, only the fans themselves can solve fans misbehaviour. They are the only ones who can effectively identify, isolate and reduce the madness. One of the best methods would be organised self-stewarding in liaison with the police. This would help in a gradual reduction of police. Until we get something similar we are stuck with authoritarian policing and a miniscule minority of policemen who themselves are little more than thugs-in-uniform. Who in their right mind wants to be the subject of CCTV scans or surveillance from a uniformed gauleiter high up in the stands in a glass box? Usually it is the good policemen who are at risk as much as the good fans. I still find it difficult to erase the memory of a fallen policeman in Manchester being set upon by a herd of demented drunken Rangers fans. But in the end we are all brutalised by it. In the light of the game's history for the last two generations none of us can plead innocent. We too often turned away from the obvious. There are no more excuses, be it West Ham boot boy or phone-in/internet boot boy. They are cut from the same cloth whether they like it or not.
Now, let's not get too fey about this. Of course this isn't just a matter of black and white. Some people don't mean "hate" at all when they use the word. What some of them mean is "dislike" or something similar. Occasionally we can forgive exaggeration because we have all been guilty of it. All footy fans have their low moments, you and I included. We have all effed and blinded in temporary disappointment, occasionally perhaps threatened to stop watching football altogether. But that's a world away from the kind of contemporary, deeply spiteful muck you can get in the wake of a defeat or other adversity, even when it comes - as the Portsmouth match did - at the end of a long run of undefeated games. Similarly with the kind of paranoid nonsense you get on some websites and forums stuck in a permanent night of conspiracies and personalities hatred, where football takes a distant second place to the perpetrators' rather obvious poor state of mental health.
In those cases, what matters isn't the fact of a defeat or some other adverse development, but the "offence" it has caused to the perpetrator. Who can then try to transfer it to anybody foolish enough to give them conversational house-room. Hence, hate puking everywhere, David Moyes is "too defensive," Bill Kenwright doesn't spend enough of what he hasn't got enough of (and has had the common sense to say so) - money - and Robert Elstone knows nothing of football business despite being in at the start of Deloitte Sports Business accountancy. All this over twenty-two men kicking a ball around a field. The fact is, you can't have a rational conversation with any of the phone-in and website/forum head cases and you would be foolish to even try. Perhaps we shouldn't expect too much from people who can only communicate in attenuated tabloid sentences, in Rupert Murdochisms, or in textspeak. It is, after all, the prime idiot language of our time. Inevitably it brings with it a sort of ad hominem envy of anybody who has tried to improve their understanding or who uses common sense - the sort of plebeian muck slung at a university education, for instance. Best to either take the mickey out of the culprits or leave them to drown in their own toxic waste, but be prepared for them to be as humourless as a blancmange when they are on the receiving end. For them, "banter" goes only one way. You can't take them seriously unless they're truly psychotic. By then anyway an ambulance restraint team is probably at their front door accompanied by a negotiator with a megaphone and a SWAT team in Condition Red.
The main perception problem is the fuel they provide for those like Mencken, quoted above, or Noam Chomsky who dubs all competitive sport "irrational jingoism." Sadly, when you listen to a phone-in you can see all too readily how this description came about. After all, how many times have you found yourself listening inadvertently to some chauvinist goon telling you which player or club or individual he hates before setting out on a glittery-eyed, foam-and-ale-flecked diatribe that has you heading for the door after thirty seconds? Or that strange claque of parents you sometimes find on the touchline of a schoolboy park match screaming rabid fatuity at their own children. It is likely such people haven't a gram of joy or good cheer anywhere in their life. God knows what affect they have on any kids unfortunate enough to be influenced by them. They are usually Last Word Freaks too. And when you get one of the great players - like Wayne Rooney - casually repeating the same stuff why be surprised when many decent people are repelled by the game before they have even looked at what it has to offer?
For, while the game's detractors are often right on one level, it is ONLY one level. There are many other facets to The Beautiful Game. While it may be trivial in concept and exercise, its overwhelming global popularity means it cannot be dismissed out of hand, that there must be SOMETHING to it. If I thought jingoism and hatred outweighed the games attractions I would just stop supporting it. But we are very far from that. There are still many worthwhile and healthy aspects to the sport. The vast majority of supporters want nothing to do with the hate-manufacturers. The game is still well worth defending and supporting. The game is still afoot.
However, you can't help wondering what's wrong with these itinerant hate-bores with a life so empty, so cheerless, they need to live down to the lowest common denominator and try to drag everyone else into their real or imagined wretchedness. Nor should we think this is a new development - extreme sports chauvinism and its peculiarities has existed everywhere since the dawn of organized competitive games. There will always be people who are incapable of separating sports competition from their own neuroses and platitudes. At its absolute worst, as we all know only too well, it becomes psychotic and even lethal. It has only gained a wider audience during the last generation through the advent of improved electronic communication. It's fair to say, though, that the present administrative and financial model of football has intensified matters and made the condition much worse, as have the media people who make a living off the backs of it. Tabloid media morons like Alan Green on BBC Radio 5 Live are unprincipled leeches who help whip up artificial hysteria with non-existent "controversies," usually nothing more than a vehicle for self-promotion and advancement. You could probably name a few such people yourself. Their kind of behaviour has helped encourage the kind of mentality capable only of "thinking" in monosyllables or artificial "passion." None of it has to do with genuine excitement or disappointment or pride or annoyance in performance, which are all perfectly normal human responses and feelings. No sport of any kind could exist without them. The grown-up existential trick is in how you handle the paradox and form a reasonable set of priorities. The vast majority of fans manage this without turning into a verbal or actual thug.
The nearest relative to the modern version of football lunacy is organized fans violence of the 1970s and 80s. This left a residue of intolerance amongst its minority crackpots and that sad generation - Thatcher's Children - who came to the game knowing nothing else. Incredibly, these days some of them even get nostalgic about an era that almost killed the game. Worse, many of that generation are presently well into a middle-age crisis and crouched over a computer keyboard plugged into the ether. The poison spreads much easier these days, virtually instantaneously. Some of them haven't lost their obsessive destructive bent. They are always there to scavenge off authentic disappointment or irritation. Most of them wouldn't laugh if they saw a chair walk......... but they would be quite ready to try to break it to pieces if it gave them some sort of bleak "advantage" in their unhappiness. Destruction is always easier than construction. Their kind of mentality only gets satisfaction by trying to make other people unhappy.
You can find the same kind of scapegoat-seeking charlatans at every club. They are the kind of deluded, clueless, quasi-aficionados who think playing a few computer football programmes has suddenly imbued them with breathtaking footy knowledge and wisdom. The fact that they are merely playing with a programmer's frozen memory never seems to enter their thick heads. In our case, after targets David Moyes, Bill Kenwright and Robert Elstone have gone it will be other targets, then someone else, and so on. Elsewhere, some of that mentality even helped to hound Alan Curbishley out of Charlton Athletic, for which sad result see the current league tables. Aston Villa has long been a nest for that kind of human rabidity, a fact newly discovered by Martin O'Neill after a mere forty-five minutes of adversity this season. And if you want THE prime example of how footy-destructive it can be you need look no further than the basket cases that are Newcastle United and Leeds United.
Nobody should think they're safe from this kind of behaviour, not even if you support the same team. For example, a good friend of mine took his daughter to the FA Cup semi-final against Manchester United. According to him, a few rows behind him were two utter morons reeking of alcohol in blue and white scarves berating everybody who didn't comply with their version of "bein' a good Evertonian." That is, spitting the worst kind of venom about anything they didn't like, which of course included, but wasn't limited to, Mancs and Wayne Rooney. Apparently it didn't matter to them who was in the vicinity. The only thing that mattered to them was their own miserable hate. One lady asked them to tone it down in the hope that a woman would succeed where nearby men had so signally failed. But her gender didn't save her from the kind of verbal mauling a Nazi would have dealt out in Auschwitz. Nobody, it seems, was shouting enough Nazi-style hate for long enough at the required decibels level. Of course her request fell on deaf ears, at least until the bores even bored themselves into silence.
The fact is we can never be completely rid of what we saw at West Ham or the kind of ignorant or poisonous garbage spouted by perennial malcontents and plain stupid people in phone-ins and message boards. Quite apart from other factors, much of it is a matter of character and personal temperament and is therefore unalterable. It would be sensible to acknowledge that central tenet of human behaviour before taking steps to improve matters. But surely we should never tire of trying. The price, as always, is constant awareness. Nobody has a complete solution. The game has many more problems than fans misbehaviour and it wouldn't do either to lose sight of those - the only people who would benefit from that are the useless bureaucratic Suits who run the game at the FA, UEFA and FIFA, together with assorted tenth rate spivs and profiteers who have done to it what they have done to the global economy. In the final analysis it really is the fans who will decide what happens. If they don't like what they see they will either take organised action or simply stop supporting the game. And that's how it should be.