In football, the villain is the man in black

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The Independent Online

The man in black stood, flanked by his two assistants, as all around him the stadium rocked in tumult, and 38,000 voices chanted. Fingers stabbed the night air in unison.

The man in black stood, flanked by his two assistants, as all around him the stadium rocked in tumult, and 38,000 voices chanted. Fingers stabbed the night air in unison.

Slowly, and with a definite air of his own importance, the object of this hysterical attention made his way towards the exit. He lingered for a minute or so, apparently savouring the moment, before disappearing down the tunnel, leaving those of us in the stands to discuss his conduct and character. That referee: what a tosser, what a disgrace he was.

It takes a lot to bring together the fans of Arsenal and Liverpool in intense, brotherly unity, but on Monday night Mr Graham Poll, with his busy little whistle and his coloured cards, managed it. During an impassioned but not unduly committed game, he had sent off a Scotsman, a Frenchman and a German.

In the executive bar at Arsenal's Highbury stadium after the game, the atmosphere was as sombre as at a funeral. It was the first home win against a great rival for some time, but the post-match interviews on Sky TV were watched in grim silence.

One after another, three Frenchman - a player and the two managers - agreed that the result was less important than the tragedy that had befallen Patrick Vieira, the French midfielder who had been sent off for the second time in three days. There was gloomy talk that he might actually desert the English game.

Football's significance is regularly exaggerated, but its moods and fads often reflect what is happening in the outside world. Particularly revealing is the fans' and commentators' choice of heroes and hate figures. Who would have thought, for example, that the cult hero at Highbury - a man who is so adored that his name was still being chanted long after he had been dismissed from the game - would be a black Frenchman?

Until five or so years ago, foreigners were regarded with profound suspicion by fans. The way they skipped effortlessly about the pitch leaving our honest British lads hoofing hopelessly at thin air was somehow not the way football should be played. Most of them were cheats, too, who lacked the red-blooded integrity of the average British man.

Now, astonishingly, in a sport where oafish nationalism was everything, being foreign has become a positive attribute. The new heroes are the Frenchmen, Italians, Costa Ricans and Georgians who have paid us the compliment of not only playing here but proving that they can behave as badly as any British player.

When Vieira was televised spitting with skill and accuracy at West Ham's hard-man defender Neil Ruddock, it was generally agreed that "Razor" had had it coming. When Paolo di Canio shoved a referee in the chest, causing him to topple backwards on to his arse like an old man in a high wind, the approving laughter could be heard in pubs across the country.

Referees are the hate figures now. While the foreigners are wild buccaneers, the men of skill and passion we long to be, the refs are the neat, pasty-faced, law-abiding, life-denying suburbanites we fear that we are.

So when, in the recent Charity Shield match, Manchester United's brutal Roy Keane lost his temper and was sent off, the fault, it was later announced, was the referee's for not exerting his authority on the game. This eccentric verdict - like blaming the police for a mugging - came not from some lagered-up fan but from Sir Alex Ferguson.

It is all very strange. This week, the newspapers have explained Vieira's problem - unsympathetic officials, less talented players - and the headlines have implored: "Don't go, Patrick!"

In those chants and pointing fingers at Highbury, our national inferiority complex was being depressingly, if not eloquently, expressed.