Fergal Keane: The game of soccer exists in a different moral universe

'Bowyer represents a frightening phenomenon in today's top-level football - the super-oaf'
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The most poignant moment of the last two years came in the middle of Shazhad Najeib's evidence. This was early in the first trial and Shazhad was describing what he could remember of the night his brother Sarfraz was beaten and left badly injured in Leeds city centre. Sarfraz was listening to the evidence from a seat near the doorway at Hull Crown Court. Jammed in beside him were his father, sister and a few family friends.

I was following the case for the BBC's Panorama programme and had met the family privately a few weeks before. The two boys were nervous about appearing in court but nonetheless anxious to see justice done. As Shazhad proceeded with his evidence, describing the savage beating meted out to his brother, I saw Sarfraz grimace. And then after a few more minutes he got up and left the court abruptly, followed by his father. Sarfraz was overcome by pain after hearing what his brother had seen.

The family has suffered untold emotional trauma. You have to sit with Muhammed Najeib and hear him describe seeing his child lying in the emergency ward, his head swollen to twice its size, or hear Shazhad talk about the images of his brother being brutalised flashing through his mind at night, to get some feeling for what has been done to this family.

They are friendly and quiet-spoken young men. They had agreed to speak with Panorama because they knew the story would be handled in a serious way. They were frank, describing only what they, themselves, had seen and experienced. I think I can recognise solid citizens when I meet them and the Najeib family truly fit the bill.

Their father had come to the country at the age of 11 to get an education. After school he went into business. He ran his own take away food shop while the boys and their sisters went to school and studied hard. The family settled on an estate in Rotherham and apart from a few name-calling incidents (they are the ones who played this down, by the way) the boys said they'd never experienced racism. They were British – or in Shazhad's humorous definition "Yorkshire Muslims" – and felt they belonged here. Or rather it is better to say the question of belonging was not an issue.

Well it is now. The precise motivation for the attack on them may never be established but the boys are adamant it was racist. Both he and his brother had an instinctual sense they were being pursued because they were Asian. The Najeib brothers are not politically active and if anything were the types who would have played down racism in the past. They are not bandwagon jumpers.

The first question to be asked is whether Leeds United's response to the case has done anything to make the Najeib brothers feel more at home? Lets start with the Leeds manager, David O'Leary. He has revealed that the club discovered Lee Bowyer and Jonathan Woodgate had lied about their behaviour on the fateful night. The club employed a private detective to check out the stories the footballers had given their manager. Does the club ban them from playing until the matter is cleared up? Far from it. Lying to the manager about the most serious incident in the club's history was a misdemeanour meriting only a stern rebuke. This, in spite of the fact that Bowyer had already disgraced the club when he was convicted of affray over an incident in London.

Instead of immediate disciplinary action the Leeds chairman Peter Ridsdale was reported to be furious with the Football Association for banning the players from the England squad. Mr Ridsdale is a widely respected figure in football, but if he knew the players had lied to the club why did he continue to allow them to be selected?

When Sarfraz was recovering from his injuries did Leeds United get in touch with the Najeibs to offer sympathy? Not according to Muhammed Najeib. Later, David O'Leary was quoted bemoaning the effect the case was having on his side, with players trotting off "here there and everywhere" to be interviewed by police. As they would say in his native Dublin: "Ah sure, God help us, you poor craythur." You can imagine how Mr O'Leary's distress was received in the Najeib household.

Then there was O'Leary's extraordinary silence in the immediate aftermath of the trial. We had to wait for a Sunday tabloid to learn his thoughts. David O'Leary insistedthat he hadn't been paid for the serialisation. So did the News of the World get O'Leary's exclusive story for nothing?

No. What apparently happened is this: O'Leary's agent gets on the phone to the publishers and asks how much they will pay for the book. An offer is made. A key part of any publishing deal with a popular non-fiction book is serialisation. If the author keeps serialisation rights the publishers pay less. If he agrees to give them to the publisher he gets paid more. If this is what happened in the Leeds case then David O'Leary or his agent should step forward and say so. Of course there is still a chance that Mr O'Leary may announce he is giving all profits from the book to community development projects in Leeds.

Then there is the matter of O'Leary's judgement about Bowyer. He is described by the manager as a "remarkable young man." Bowyer is not at all remarkable. Instead he represents a frightening phenomenon in top level football – the super-oaf. The super-oaf earns vast amounts of money but is ignorant of good manners, he revels in the adulation of the fans but his behaviour indicates contempt for them, privately he cannot believe his good luck at being hoisted above the mob but he is a creature devoid of humility. This is the age of super-oaf and, in a game dominated by money more than ever, he knows exactly how much he is worth, how scared the club would be to lose him. He is ignorant, yes, but cunning to the core.

So we hear West Ham saying the club is "disappointed" after 18 members of the squad were thrown out of a London nightclub for oafish behaviour. "Disappointed". Does the game of soccer exist in a different moral universe? The case involving the Najeibs is now the subject of a civil action. But there is a much bigger question for the people who run football. The problem of the super-oaf will not go away until the FA gets tough with the clubs who tolerate drunkenness and thuggery among their players.

They could start by summoning all of the Premiership chairmen to an emergency summit; this would at least tell the public that the men who run football have the courage to confront the big clubs. At the moment the FA is an organisation which knows there is a problem but it is just too spineless to act.

But it does finally come down to what action managers will take. Unless the O'Leary's of this world are willing to do more than wring their hands, soccer will be relentlessly shamed by the actions of the super-oafs. This must mean more suspensions and bigger fines. There is one small glimmer of hope. As part of Leeds' response to the case, Lee Bowyer has been ordered to do community work in the inner city among black and Asian children. Perhaps in that deprived world he may start to learn the meaning of humility.

The writer is a BBC Special Correspondent

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