No black and white answer to colourful language issue

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The Independent Online
BAD LANGUAGE: A behavioural dilemma. Discuss with particular reference to association football.

Some of my best friends swear prolifically; most of them swear to some extent; I have been sworn at by one or two of the best-known figures in football; I have participated in hundreds of conversations whose principle adjectives have been swear-words.

As it happens, however, I'm a relatively infrequent swearer. Generally, the only things which pollute my language are severe irritation at myself (e.g. a dropped catch, after which my conduct is a disgrace), mild outbreaks of road-rage and the tongue-loosening effect of alcohol.

I claim no plaudits, nor do I seek canonisation. It's simply a matter of habit and upbringing. The strongest word my late father ever used was "confound"! Only once have I heard my mother swear (under profound stress) and I remember finding it mildly disturbing. In an under-10s school match, I once shouted "Bugger!" after scuffing a shot and was threatened with a trip to the headmaster's study. I came to understand that it was wrong.

Don't worry. This isn't about to be a sermon; merely the ramblings of one who has become confused about the ethics of bad (or, perhaps, NOT bad) language, one who hears thousands of supporters effing and blinding in choral and unhindered togtherness, but sees players and managers penalised for employing "industrial" language. One who steers his children adroitly away from the worst linguistic excesses, but laughs compliantly at jokes whose humourous root is in their foulness.

Am I (a) a hypocrite; (b) right; or (c) wasting my energy in adopting a relatively righteous approach to what is a pretty insignificant vice - if, indeed, it is a vice at all?

In Rome this week, a Portuguese defender crumpled beneath the challenge of a Norwegian striker, causing the Italian manager of an English club allegedly to swear at a German linesman. As a result, Gianluca Vialli was sent off. Wouldn't you love to know exactly what he said? And in which language? Can a referee from Gelsenkirchen be absolutely convinced that the words of an Anglo-Italian coach are sufficiently "foul and abusive" to merit a red card? Anyway, who decides what constitutes "foul and abusive"? Furthermore, why weren't the majority of the Chelsea supporters expelled from the Olympic Stadium for their low-brow chants?

The inconsistency is blatant. Either it's OK to swear or it isn't. Many football stadia in our country have signs warning that "racist and obscene language will not be tolerated". Nonsense. Almost invariably, obscene language is tolerated and - particularly on a family outing to "the match" with mother, aunt, in-law or young child - it can be embarrassing.

The language of the Sunderland manager, Peter Reid, became one of the central features of a BBC documentary series. He didn't just swear between words; he swore within them. I ****ing chuckled along with every-****ing- one else.

No one thinks any the worse of him. Nor should they. Reid is one of the most likeable, rational and decent blokes in the game. Other people might be arrogant, rude, bad-tempered or haughty. He happens to swear. So what? But what if a steward needs to eject a foul-mouthed fan from The Stadium of Light?

At least on match days Premiership managers are camouflaged by a noisy crowd. Try taking a young boy to a small, non-league venue where the cries of each player, manager and spectator are audible? How long before my five-year-old comes home and tells his mum with angel-faced innocence that the ref was a "****ing disgrace"?

A few weeks ago I came close to leaning over a brick wall and asking a coach to moderate his language. As it happened, I had neither the confidence (in the face of potential ridicule) nor the moral conviction (in the knowledge of my own alternative shortcomings) to do so. There is almost no one within football who can claim innocence on this front. So we'll never be any the clearer.

I bet even the Archbishop of Canterbury has a quiet "asterisk" when Arsenal go behind.