Don't give a red card to football's dark side

Expecting the game to be civilised is like wanting sex to be decent
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The Independent Online

We still have not settled on a satisfactory abstract noun to cover one of the prevailing social trends in Britain today. "Yobbishness" has its supporters but lacks force and focus. "Yobbery" sounds faintly comical. "Yobbism", which is gaining ground in some quarters, makes the whole knuckle-headed business sound like some sort of French intellectual movement. Whatever we choose to call it, the yob thing is back. Football fans from Watford and Luton have been brawling on the pitch. Earlier in the season, there was trouble at Millwall, traditionally a mecca for psychos and hard men. The Cardiff boys, a lower species of pond life when it comes to hooliganism, have been on the march again. Grim reports from the front line have appeared in the Sunday newspapers.

We still have not settled on a satisfactory abstract noun to cover one of the prevailing social trends in Britain today. "Yobbishness" has its supporters but lacks force and focus. "Yobbery" sounds faintly comical. "Yobbism", which is gaining ground in some quarters, makes the whole knuckle-headed business sound like some sort of French intellectual movement. Whatever we choose to call it, the yob thing is back. Football fans from Watford and Luton have been brawling on the pitch. Earlier in the season, there was trouble at Millwall, traditionally a mecca for psychos and hard men. The Cardiff boys, a lower species of pond life when it comes to hooliganism, have been on the march again. Grim reports from the front line have appeared in the Sunday newspapers.

There has also been some seriously bad behaviour among the footballers themselves. Court cases, recounting unsavoury scenes outside night-clubs, have cast an unpleasant light on the off-duty antics of Leeds and Chelsea players. Even when specific charges have been dismissed, photographs outside the courts of celebrated young players, with their hard, weasel-like faces, sharp suits and big ties, have done little for the image of the game.

Roy Keane, a brilliant midfielder and widely portrayed as a leader of football's yobbist tendency, will have thrilled his publishers of his memoirs by getting into the headlines, proudly boasting that he had set out to injure an old grudge-partner, Alf-Inge Haaland, with a vicious high tackle. Explaining his departure for the Irish World Cup squad, Keane expressed contempt for what he saw as an over-relaxed approach by his manager and, implicitly, for the good-natured Irish supporters who cheer their team whether they win or lose.

England's darling, David Beckham, entered the drama this weekend, apparently landing an elbow in the face of another prince of Yobland, Lee Bowyer of Leeds.

I suppose that the sensible, grown-up approach to all this is to express the weary regret and distaste that is spreading like a chilly fog through the usual quarters. "I hate football so much these days that I can hardly bear to report it," reads the headline over a piece by Michael Henderson in this week's Spectator. Writing with genuine disgust, Henderson refers to the "foulness of football", its greed and violence, the oafishness with which fans express support of their own team and their hatred of others, its pampered, moneyed and amoral stars – in short, the game's "capacity for finding all that is most base and vile in people, and bringing it to the surface".

No one in his right mind could defend the racism, thuggishness and violence of football's more neanderthal fans. Obviously any player who regards nose-breaking elbow-work as a modern footballing skill or who dives in, stud first, at knee-height with a view to breaking another player's leg, deserves to be suspended, heavily fined and told in no uncertain manner that he has been over-competitive.

On the other hand, faced with two different kinds of sport: that of Roy Keane – hot-blooded, committed, ferociously over-the-top – and that of the man in the Spectator – deft, skilful, played with old-fashioned decency and Corinthian spirit – I know which I would prefer. The point about great competitive sport is that it not only enacts courage, physical prowess, fitness, team spirit and all that is best in the human physique and spirit, but also its darker, less attractive, nasty, niggling, cheating side.

I like that. For me, it is precisely because soccer combines so many moral complexities and opportunities to do good and bad that it so compelling and cathartic to watch. Expecting it to be civilised is like wanting sex to be decent. If the Bowyers and Keanes often fall short as acceptable role models for the children who watch them, then that is probably true of uncompromising winners in other walks of life, like business, politics or the media.

I have wonderful memories of taking my son to football matches during the period in the 1980s when yob rule was at its height. There were unpleasant moments (Arsenal fans tearing up seats and hurling them, middle-aged Chelsea fans screaming foul-mouthed abuse, a 10-year-old boy chanting "Yid, yid" at a Spurs player, watched by his proud father) but the best, most memorable afternoons and evenings were not when we witnessed "all that is most base and vile in people" but were matches of passion, rage, excess.

None of which should be construed as a defence of violence or gang warfare. I hope that one day our great sporting events, like the titanic battle this weekend between Norwich and Ipswich, can be conducted with commitment, rage and partisanship but without yobbism. In the meantime, we should ignore the dreary voices of those who want to sanitise sport and who would replace passion with good manners.

terblacker@aol.com

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