When we talk about the beautiful game, we generally have in mind the joyful rhythms of Pelé’s Brazil – but there is more to it than that. Football is also a vehicle for the safe discharge of hatred, aggression and general disrespect, a sight less aesthetic but equally primal, and as such, equally beautiful.
There is, though, a line – one being crossed, with increasing regularity, by newspapers as well as supporters. Of course, Her Majesty’s press has long been famous for its snide, vitriolic treatment of, well, anyone and everyone, but even in that context, still reserves a special level of unpleasantness for footballers – especially those who represent England.
It’s easy enough to argue that it “comes with the territory” and is therefore “part of the job”; robustness in accepting criticism is an essential skill for any professional sportsman. And though that’s true, it still doesn’t make the notion any more sensible; people just don’t work that way. Steven Gerrard, no one’s idea of a wimp, noted that when playing for England in the throes of a pressured situation, minds are spooked by the inevitable reaction to failure, a mentality which quickly becomes reality. The last time England did well in a tournament, in 1996, shrillness of this ilk was largely absent; coincidental perhaps, but there’s a lesson there nonetheless.
Still, the general abuse, though it infringes rules of decency and wisdom, is mainly harmless. The problem is the more nefarious strain which, in addition to the classism so common in treatment of footballers, victimises and incites against players of colour.
Before England met Iceland at Euro 2016, a broadsheet reported the news that Raheem Sterling had been recalled to the starting XI, embedding into the relevant webpage a ticker to let readers know how much money he had earned in the time that they had been reading. That’s the Raheem Sterling who is well-remunerated on account of the immense talent and sacrifice required to thrive in a wildly popular industry.
Back in France, England duly collapsed, the defeat the most dispiriting in their history. Naturally, the papers needed a scapegoat, but the way they found them had nothing to do with football. Sterling was upbraided for using his own money to buy a nice house with posh taps – it was later reported, without apology, that these were gifts for the single mum who raised him; Dele Alli failed to cover himself in sackcloth and ashes “after England’s embarrassing Euro 2016 exit”, instead enjoying a holiday at the end of an arduous season; Kyle Walker sent a private message to a girl, expressing a desire to join her in Ibiza, and though this was done “jokingly”, somehow it also rubbed, “even more salt in the wounds of England fans, who had travelled to France to wholeheartedly support their team, only to see them crash out in spectacular style”; and Daniel Sturridge admitted to using aftershave.
Most of the journalists writing such stories are white, and the newspaper proprietors definitely are. Meanwhile, Roy Hodgson, the white person who was largely responsible for England’s failure and who did everything possible to evade that responsibility, remained curiously unpilloried.
The brunt of the grief was and is borne by Sterling. Only last week, he was ridiculed by three tabloids after photos emerged of him “loading up” in Poundworld – in 2014!
However people excuse themselves, this attitude is not a consequence of poor summer performances, simply a different manifestation of the hounding suffered by others deemed responsible for England’s failures – David Beckham in 1998, Philip Neville in 2000, Urs Meier in 2004 and Cristiano Ronaldo in 2006.
Even before the Euros, Sterling was regularly jeered at away grounds and by away supporters, despite no especial animus between him and them or his club and their club – in the most recent round of Premier League games, fans of Burnley felt unable to let him be.
Ideally, we’d deem this part of the pantomime hatred that’s simply part of football’s charm and move on, the problem being it’s only ever directed at him and only began after he agitated for a transfer away from Liverpool. Though this relatively common behavior is generally objected to only by those with an affiliation to the spurned club, Sterling’s discourtesy in desiring better money and a better job appears to have affronted guardians of morality up and down the country.
The implication of the aggravation is that Sterling didn’t deserve his move and doesn’t deserve his salary, or, framed another way, deems himself entitled to wealth and success. And such behaviour is not always appreciated. Minorities with ability are one thing; minorities who refuse to suppress themselves are something else.
Ashley Cole is another who was hectored more or less everywhere he went, after forcing through a move from Arsenal to Chelsea. Unlike Sterling, he was already proven as an elite player, but his desire to control his labour – an aspect of blackness historically ill-received by white folk – was enough to override his on-pitch brilliance.
Bluntly, some white people are uncomfortable with money, success and power in the hands of non-white people. As part of a minority you learn to detect what is and isn’t racist or discriminatory, and identify the coded language, images and symbols that convey those messages. And it needn’t be witting – it is unlikely that any writer, editor or sub-editor intended to attack a certain group, nor to perpetuate stereotypes and slurs. But not being racist extends far beyond answering “No” to the question “Are you racist?” Equally relevant is how you portray people who are different, how you make them feel about their difference, and whether you judge them differently.
For non-minorities, it is impossible to be certain what is and isn’t acceptable, which is to say that the only way to learn what is and isn’t acceptable is not to consider and decide, but to listen and learn. People who have never experienced a specific kind of discrimination, who have no idea what it feels like, cannot and may not determine how it is constituted.
And none of this changes when viewed through the prism of football. Not that football isn’t a peculiar thing, it is: we go to the game, behave in a manner entirely unacceptable everywhere else, and go home all the better for it. Broadly speaking, it’s harmless fun.
But sometimes, dangerous undertones and overtones interfere. In following our teams, we invest an enormous amount of time, thought, energy and emotion; far more of us are far more fanatical about it than about politics or religion. Just a few months ago, a pro-immigration MP was murdered, on account of her pro-immigration stance, at the exact time the media was full of anti-immigration rhetoric. It is not hard to fathom a connection.
Football is a beautiful thing that makes the world a better place, an intensifying obsession that is part of who we are, which is why we care about it so much. But with its escapist delights come responsibilities that we may never abandon – whether as fans, journalists or human beings.
Daniel Harris is a writer and filmmaker and can be found on Twitter @DanielHarris.