Football needs a cold shower : LEADING ARTICLE

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The Independent Online
"Shame" (n a state of disgrace, discredit or intense regret) must have been the most overused word in the language last week. Even the Guardian headed its two pages of analysis with "Soccer's Latest Shame". The tabloids were not outdone. "We reveal the scumbag squad," was Today's headline. "Return of England's Plankton Army. They're violent, they're very thick, so just who are the pondlife pansies who claim to be soccer fans?" In the Sun, the chief football writer, Martin Samuel, in a textbook demonstration of how this supposed "shame" can be combined with offensive chauvinism, announced: "I want to be a citizen of another country, any country. Tinpot African dictatorships, South American juntas, tiny European republics where the president goes to work on a bicycle. I want . . . to renounce my nationality." There, in Dublin, he was ashamed of his accent (how does he think Irish people in England felt after the Warrington bombing or, for that matter, English people in Port Said in 1956?) but would open his mouth for one last phrase: "May those bastards rot in hell."

A large section of the population, many of them women, may have wondered what the fuss was about. A football match of no competitive importance was abandoned. Nobody was killed, as people were at the Heysel, Hillsborough and Bradford; city centres were not wrecked, as they have been in the past when England played abroad. Young men behaved very badly. So what?

The point about football, however, is that it displays, at a national public event, some of the worst aspects of our society. These are, put simply, bad manners and hysteria. This is not to argue, as Jimmy Hill always does with a wag of his sententious chin, that it is purely society's problem. Football is the most bad-mannered and hysterical of sports. Racist abuse is at a level that would be entirely unacceptable, probably unlawful, in any other public place. No throw-in or free kick is awarded without both sides trying to steal a few inches. Clubs dump managers, and managers clubs, at a minute's notice. Referees are routinely insulted. Goals are greeted with ectasy, defeats with a grief more appropriate to mass bereavement. The spectators are encouraged to take part, "saluted" by the players or enjoined by managers to "get behind" the team. Behaviour off the field is of a piece with behaviour on it . Even the euphemisms are the same: just as a player who nearly cripples another has made an "over-enthusiastic tackle", so a pitch invasion is often the work of "over-enthusiastic supporters". For all the talk of the beautiful game, it is as if football itself offered too thin a gruel without all this contrived melodrama. Certainly, the people who run the game, sponsor it, broadcast it, write about it have no interest in reducing the temperature. The greater the hysteria, the greater the public attention.

But if football is to blame for cultivating the extremes of hysteria it must be acknowledged that it has to survive in an increasingly hysterical society. It has become a branch of the advertising industry and, as such, it has to be brash and bold. Violence may keep a few people away from matches but, for top clubs, that hardly matters. Who ever switched their television off for fear of seeing a punch-up? The orgasmic approach of the media adds to the climate of hysteria. The language used is not as foul as that in the football stands but it falls on the same side of the line of what would have been publicly acceptable 30 years ago. Many people talk of "scum" or "bastards", not because they are reluctant to denounce football hooligans, but simply because they think it ill-mannered (and unintelligent) to use these words in any context.

Some young men, collected together, have always been apt to behave badly - whether they are in Benidorm or Dublin or their local city centre. But the football authorities can make their game less of a vehicle for mass public offence. They can, for example, ban the England team from playing abroad. They can even expel from domestic leagues the clubs whose supporters cause persistent disturbances. That, at least, would create incentives to calm the game down. Until those involved do so, "shame" will be overworked to the point of exhaustion.