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6 November 2019

Two great football mysteries: what the crowds are chanting and why Arsenal fans are so mean

Crowds can be witty and spontaneous, but also elliptical and complicated, booing players for sins committed ages ago, or for ancient quotes attributed to them.

By Hunter Davies

There are many mysteries in football, one of which is why commentators don’t comment on what we at home are hearing but can’t really understand because we’re not there. They are excellent at telling us that was a goal – a nice goal, after a nice pass, very nice pass – as if we have not just clearly seen it on the screen. They are also good at telling us the time – that we are now 30 minutes into the game, or just another ten minutes to go – when we can see that on the screen, up in the corner. Look, there it is, we can’t miss it, isn’t modern TV wonderful?

What they don’t explain is what the crowd is chanting and why. In the Man Utd-Chelsea game in October, all of us at home could clearly hear sudden chants of “José Mourinho, José Mourinho”. Was it the Man Utd crowd, fed up with Ole Gunnar Solskjær? Surely not. Was it the Chelsea crowd, wishing they had Mourinho back? Again, surely not. Or perhaps they were mocking Man Utd and the mess Mourinho made of managing them?

They did not explain, or let us see which fans were doing the chanting. Perhaps the chants were because Mourinho had been spotted sitting in the stand – or had he materialised in the sky, hovering over the centre spot? I spent the rest of the game trying to work it out.

Crowds can be witty and spontaneous, but also elliptical and complicated, booing players for sins committed ages ago, or for ancient quotes attributed to them. So we need things explained.

It is often worse in Europe, when our lads are playing a foreign club. The two commentators can twit on about the British team forever, reading out their prepared notes, but they have rarely done any decent homework on the other side. They can’t tell us what the home crowd is singing or booing. Local colour consists of them telling us about the awful noisy night they spent in their hotel. As if we care. Why can’t the second commentator be someone who knows the local club and fans, and can explain things to us at home?

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Kevin de Bruyne is another mystery. Is he the most miserable bugger in football? You never see him smile or look as if he is enjoying himself. He appears to be on his own with no friends. Off the pitch, is he always moaning and complaining, blaming everyone else? Yes, I know, it is stupid to read character into someone’s body language.

So let’s consider the Arsenal fans. Are they the pits? Why were they so horrible to Arsène Wenger, when he had worked wonders for the club, served them so well for so long. Ungrateful hussies.

I remember many years ago them booing and mocking that ginger-headed player with his shorts pulled up high whose name will come to me in a moment. Gorrit – Perry Groves. Then when he retired, he became a cult figure.

They also took against Emmanuel Eboué – though a lot of the chanting was ironic. “You’ve only come to see Eboué,” they would yell at rival supporters. Nwankwo Kanu often made them groan, but Arsenal fans did enjoy chanting his name: “KAN-OO, KAN-OO!”

Now they have taken against their captain Granit Xhaka, booing him when he got substituted, sending death threats to him and his family.

Why do they do it, making life worse for their own players? Why not stick to rubbishing the opposition, as all caring, cultured and civilised fans have always done.

Is James Milner employing a PR? At Man City he was often jeered at for being boring; now he is a hero at Liverpool.

In his new book, Milner tells how, before the 2018 UEFA Champions League final against Real Madrid, Jürgen Klopp stripped down to his underpants to reveal he was wearing CR7 boxer shorts. Did they a roar. What a hoot. A shame Liverpool got beaten and Cristiano Ronaldo, then playing for Real Madrid, won his fifth Champions League title.

Come on, you know what the letters and numbers mean: “CR” for Cristiano Ronaldo and “7” for his shirt number. No mystery there, for anyone who has followed football and fashion these past ten years… 

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This article appears in the 06 Nov 2019 issue of the New Statesman, What went wrong