An article claiming that “all Tories hate women and gays” would rightly receive short thrift from NS editors and readers alike. When it comes to football, however, such easy stereotypes have twice graced these web pages in the past year.
A polemic smearing football lovers as fascists was followed yesterday by another post attacking supporters, calling on them to “justify [their] decisions” to support misogyny and homophobia, and asking: “How on earth can lefties like football?” Such crude caricatures insult readers’ intelligence.
Left-wingers in football are not only to be found haring up the port flank on a Saturday afternoon. Indeed, the sport has been home to many intelligent, progressive voices. The manager Brian Clough was chair of the Anti-Nazi League, while Alex Ferguson is still a regular fixture on Labour Party campaign material. In November, Eric Cantona called for a run on banks to start “a real revolution” against institutions at the heart of a system that “must be destroyed”.
Outspoken left-leaning stars are matched by a growing grass-roots movement to counter the greed and commercialism rightly criticised by Laurie Penny and Helen Lewis-Hasteley. The formation of FC United in protest at Malcolm Glazer’s controversial takeover of Manchester United was followed in 2007 by the mutualised purchase of Ebbsfleet United by ordinary fans, each paying £35 through the website myfootballclub.co.uk.
It is fans who are leading the battle against the tide of capital sweeping through the modern game. When Red Bull bought SV Austria Salzburg, summarily changing the club’s name and kit and declaring that “this is a new club with no history”, the drinks giant was forced into concessions, in the wake of a Europe-wide campaign by supporters’ organisations. Ridicule of grotesque consumption in football, such as El Hadji Diouf’s absurd gold Cadillac Escalade, will first gain traction in online forums.
Sweeping generalisations that “women are nothing more than baubles” are insulting to those blazing a trail of equality within the sport. The second target of Richard Keys‘s career-wrecking remarks was Karren Brady, married to the Canadian football club manager Paul Peschisolido and, as such, a “footballer’s wife”. As the former managing director of Birmingham City Football Club and the youngest ever director of a UK plc, however, she would surely object to being referred to as maîtresse-en-titre.
The sport has made huge strides in confronting head-on issues of racism that were rife on the terraces in the 1980s, but no one will deny that football – like politics – still has issues with sexism and homophobia. Rather than champion the cause of women within sport, however, Lewis-Hasteley counsels abandoning the Beautiful Game to what is now a small minority of bigots. To suggest that those taking their daughter to under-11 training or cheering Stonewall FC from the touchline are wasting their time is more Helen Kendrick Johnson than Emmeline Pankhurst.
A myopic scrutiny of testosterone-fuelled Premier League excess will never recognise the spirit of community and solidarity engendered in local areas by the tens of thousands of clubs outside of football’s elite. In the words of Bill Shankly:
The socialism I believe in is not really politics. It is a way of living. It is humanity. I believe the only way to live and to be truly successful is by collective effort, with everyone working for each other, everyone helping each other, and everyone having a share of the rewards at the end of the day. That might be asking a lot, but it’s the way I see football and the way I see life.
This sounds more like the game I know.
Football isn’t fox-hunting. Attempts to link something so gloriously variegated to a single political outlook are doomed to failure. We’re not asking you to enjoy our sport. But stop tarring those who do with the same sexist, homophobic brush.
Laurence Durnan is the editor of Political Scrapbook.