Yes, football fans are nasty. But it's all ironic, innit?

The other week I tuned in to some tennis. Can't remember why. Probably I'd been searching for live football, anywhere, any level, which I often find myself doing. Sad, I know. I did catch England schoolboys in a friendly against Turkey schoolboys and that was quite good, if you're desperate, suffering from deprivation. I even made notes, writing down likely names to look out for in the future, if I'm still here, if they ever grow up, so I can say, yeah, I remember him in nappies, always thought he'd do well. Turkey had this very small kid in midfield, ever so quick, ever so skilful, called Circec. Think that was his name. Can't read my writing now. More than sad. Pathetic.

Anyway, the tennis was Greg Rusedski against Jim Courier in the Davis Cup and it was really, really exciting. Britain had to win to move on to whatever the next thing is they have to win, so I shouted to my wife, come quick, this is really exciting, Greg looks like winning for Britain.

He's not British, she said, I'm not watching him. Yes he is, I said. He's become a citizen and anyway his Mam came from Pontefract or Batley or somewhere. Don't care, she said. He's still not proper British. Sometimes, I said, you sound more and more like your Dad. That silenced her. But she still didn't come and watch.

So I was there on my own, cheering on our lad. Apart from about 10,000 people watching in the flesh, in some aircraft hangar in Birmingham. Greg was all sweat and emotion, his heart on his sleeve, his feelings slopping about all over the shop, terribly un-British, or half un-British. He was rushing things, getting himself in a panic, and in the end he gave it all away. Courier was an automaton.

The most interesting thing of all was the crowd. They have stayed in my mind ever since. They were so clean, well dressed, civilised, ever so polite, waving their sweet little Union Jacks as if they were at the last night of the Proms. A few equally cleanos were waving sweet little Stars and Stripes.

No one booed. That was what I couldn't get over. No one hissed, jeered, sang rude personal chants about Courier's sex life, drug life, mother's life, wife's life or personal habits. If, of course, he has any. Even at a vital moment, such as getting ready to serve, they stayed silent.

In their sweet little minds, the Brit fans were clearly willing him to make a mistake, yet no one went "Aaaaaahhhh, you're shit!" the way we do in football when the rival goalie is taking a goal-kick. No voices tried to drown out or abuse the Yank fans when they did their bit of cheering and waving. As we do in football.

Now why is this? Why are we in football so horrible, while in tennis they are just so, well, nice?

Social class, that might have something to do with it. We football supporters are working class in our roots, apart from a few recent arrivals. That's how we were brung up at our sec mods and comps. We don't know any better. Tennis, like cricket, was always for poshos.

Tradition, that's another reason. We shout those chants, or similar, because our fathers did, or similar. "I'm forever blowing bubbles" has been sung at West Ham for about 70 years.

So we have been conditioned. We can't help how we react. Just like Julie Burchill or Germaine Greer can't help how they react. They rubbish sex or men because they have no sex or men in their lives. That's the environment in which they live. You have to feel sorry for them. They can't help their views, poor petals. Now where was I?

There is a blind prejudice in football, stupid loyalty to one's club, which hasn't got a counterpart in tennis. We love one team, ergo we hate the other. I don't think tennis fans identify with one player to the extent of actively hating the rivals.

Then there are the players themselves. That's a vital factor in explaining the crowd difference. In football, players on the pitch are nasty to each other, abuse each other, wind each other up. That's what you are expected to do. God knows why Le Saux and Fowler got punished for such normal, healthy, routine, manly behaviour. Fortunately Robbie only got a £30,000 fine, ie, about three minutes' wages.

It's also a physical contact sport, unlike tennis. You push, shove, kick, try to hurt, try to weaken. And you cheat, given half a chance, claim things you know are wrong, pretend injury, pretend fury, do sly, cruel things. It's little wonder that football crowds are nasty. They pick it up from the players.

Yes, we are pretty horrible people, vulgar in our chants, stunted in our emotions, primitive in our beliefs, violent in our hatreds. There is little help for us, oh Lord.

Except that complete beginners, arrivals from another planet, might not be able to interpret the anthems, understand the rhythms. It's a joke, most of it. Cheap irony and rough sarcasm.

Look at the faces as they chant the songs, waving their arms, stripping off their shirts on the coldest of days. It's a laugh, innit? When the other lot retaliate, that's even more fun. "You're not singing any more" or "It's all gone quiet over there" are desperate appeals, wanting the enemy to abuse us even more.

Most of all, it's an outlet, a safety valve. We get rid of our nastier, pettier emotions, just as the players do. You have to feel sorry for those tight-arsed, buttoned-up tennis fans, sitting there prissily, silently, when Greg got stuffed.

"Aaaaaahhhh, you're shit!" I shouted, all on my own, when bastard-face Courier won. And felt really good for the rest of the evening . . .

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 April 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The great Balkan lie