Years ago whenever a black player turned out in an English league game so-called ‘monkey chants’ would be heard loud and clear from the opposition’s fans, every time the ball went near that player. No doubt those noises would be louder if the player actually did something that annoyed opposition fans, although for many of those fans the only thing he needed to do was be there. And alongside the chants were the equally moronic gestures.
I’ve been deliberately vague with the ‘years ago’ because I honestly couldn’t say when it started to die down. In the domestic game at least it’s practically unheard of these days but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. Earlier this year a Liverpool fan was found guilty of racial abuse, aimed at an opposition player at Anfield, the abuse coming in the form of gestures (caught on TV) and verbal abuse (reported by another supporter sitting near him at the game). He got fined and banned from going to any Liverpool or England matches for four years. He wouldn’t have been welcome at Anfield anyway, by the club or by the vast majority of supporters, even if the ban hadn’t been ordered.
Every village has an idiot and the same applies to football clubs. This idiot got caught, primarily, because he was spotted by someone watching it on TV. That evidence no doubt made it easier for the fan who heard the verbal abuse to come forward and report it; certainly the two pieces of evidence together made it harder for the idiot to get away with what he’d done.
There are obviously a number of reasons why the obscene chanting more or less stopped and much has been said about those reasons by people far more qualified and experienced than me to talk about them. It’s safe to say there were far more openly racist people in society in general at the height of football’s period of overt racism. Some of those people are just, as John Barnes has said many times, racist in private now. But others will have learned what should have been obvious – that their so-called humour, their bit of fun, their good laugh with their mates was actually extremely hurtful and offensive and that if they had any shred of decency they wouldn’t dream of wanting to do something so upsetting to someone else.
One step on from that, whether they’d known all along or got smacked in the face late in the day by something so obvious, is to then work on those around them who still either didn’t realise or didn’t care. Do they go quiet for a bit, refrain from joining in without speaking out about it being wrong, or do they speak out and risk abuse from those mates?
It doesn’t take long to work out that if they’re mates they’ll listen to what you have to say about it and if they’re anything like you they’ll see, when you hit them across the face with it, just how wrong it is to carry on this way. Not just on the terraces, in the pub, on the coach, wherever. Times like that you find out who your mates really are, who you really want to be mates with.
Of course it’s one thing confronting your mates, what about people you’re not mates with but who sit near you at the game? People who might always be in those seats or people you’ve never seen before? Can you actually imagine someone sitting in a seat near you doing that, the chanting, the abuse, the gestures? Can you imagine yourself doing nothing about it?
Maybe it takes a lot of guts to stand up to them, it’s one thing disapproving but quite another to go out of your way to confront them or to report them to someone. But could you just sit there and let them get away with it?
It’s difficult to imagine even a handful of people at a football match standing up and hurling racist abuse or making racist gestures these days. Racist people still go to football because there are still racist people in society, but those racist people tend to be cowards, bullies really, who don’t act in their hurtful way if there’s a remote chance of any hurt of any kind coming back at them. They felt brave in a crowd of others but how many clubs, or sets of supporters, would tolerate them now?
If five fans had stood up at a Premier League ground this weekend and started some loud racist singing and exaggerating racist gesturing how long would they have lasted? Would fans around them tolerate it? Would stewards let it pass? Would it need to be caught on TV for it to go any further? It’s hard to imagine it being ignored, being allowed to continue, for the fans being left to their own devices to continue their spiteful, hateful behaviour.
If word got out about it, that it had been going on all game from that little but vocal group, would fellow fans of that club condemn it? Of course they would. It might be understandable, maybe, that those in the vicinity of the idiots felt too intimidated to do anything about it at the time. But after the game was over and the topic was up for discussion it’s hard to imagine anyone defending the idiots’ behaviour, even in a small way.
A report of fans using unambiguously racist abuse is highly unlikely to be met with comments by fellow supporters of that team of: “Well sometimes some of their fans have said racist things too you know.” Or making stuff up: “I saw their fans making similar gestures.”
What if it wasn’t five fans, what if it was a genuinely sizable number? Would their fellow ‘fans’ defend it in the same kind of way? What if it wasn’t even at a game their target was involved in? That their hate was such that they seemed to have it on their mind at every game, like it was part of some kind of obsession of theirs?
This isn’t the ‘hate’ of club rivalry, which isn’t really hate anyway, this goes beyond this, sucking more of the stupid in the more everyone else lets it go on.
It doesn’t matter if it’s one fan, five fans or a big group of fans. If it’s wrong it’s wrong and something needs to be done about it. And if something isn’t done about it then it’s one fan today, five tomorrow and a big group next week.
If there’s an excuse, of sorts, for the racist chanting of days gone by then the excuse is that of not knowing any better, of not being shown why it was wrong, of maybe just following the crowd. If that was an excuse, it’s an excuse that’s gone. Long gone. And it’s an excuse you don’t get to use twice.
Where Hillsborough is concerned maybe, just maybe, some people didn’t really think about it when they started with the various chants that are rooted in the need of the spiteful to inflict pain on those who suffered at or because of that disaster.
Where Hillsborough is concerned maybe, just maybe, people genuinely believed the lies now proven as such about the part some fans played in the disaster. Anyone with an ounce of intelligence, personal integrity or empathy can see from spending a fraction of time reading the findings of the Hillsborough Independent Panel that the deaths and suffering were not the fault of Liverpool supporters.
There can no longer be any excuse for the vile chanting, be it the direct “you killed your own fans” abuse or the weapon of the more devious hate-filled individuals who coin such chants as “always the victims, never your fault.”
Anybody too stupid to see through that thin veil now is probably too stupid to use a social network or to remember the words of a song, which leaves only those who know full well where the chant comes from, what it’s based on and how hurtful the intentions of its authors were.
The same kind of veil hides the stupid from the true intentions of other chants and slogans about other disasters, mock compassion about something they usually know very little about and do absolutely nothing about, words only designed to hurt, never to help.
Wednesday’s report did a lot of things and empowered much more to start happening or to be put right. The battle has barely started against those who did wrong, some of whom had 23 years to put it right and who now can expect no compassion whatsoever.
But it also gave the previously ignorant – wilfully or just because they trusted the wrong people – a chance to start again in terms of how they act towards their fellow football supporter, to see it from that other side.
It gives the previously ignorant the chance to see how it had nothing to do with who anyone supported, how it could have been any of us.
It gives the previously ignorant the chance to show they aren’t also stupid. It takes the excuses away – and “they started it” has never been an excuse. Not for any chants, gestures or actions designed to deeply hurt others.
Nobody should start it. Nobody should carry it on. And those who do should be dealt with by their own as much as by anyone else.
“Respect” is a word wasted by football’s authorities. But that doesn’t mean we can’t show them what it really means.