The reaction of the football world to the stricken Fabrice Muamba’s fight for life on the White Hart Lane pitch has seen the sport and its followers united in sympathy and respect for the Bolton Wanderers player.
Football fans are normally split along territorial, tribal lines with gloating and mocking frequently fermenting into insults and abuse yet the behaviour of the Tottenham fans on Saturday has been rightly commended. What is disturbing is that anyone is surprised. After all, each spectator was just a human being witnessing a fellow person struggling against the ultimate challenge and compassion, correctly and inevitably, supplanted cynicism among the 36,000 people present.
Followers of the beautiful game have rarely been painted in a good light with the routine hooliganism of the 1970s brought to a dreadful crescendo with the events at the Heysel Stadium in 1985 when 39 Juventus fans died before their European Cup final meeting with Liverpool. Since those dark days, the Taylor Report’s insistence on all-seater stadia in the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster, the creation of the Premier League and the nationwide positivity generated by the hosting of Euro 2006 have all helped to cleanse the game of this widespread problem though ugly elements persist.
The Muamba incident has seen most fans set aside their differences but for some it seems nothing is sacrosanct. Student Liam Stacey thought it appropriate to post racially abusive tweets mocking the midfielder’s condition. The quick response of the police – following up on a multitude of complaints – has ensured that this odious moron has already been brought before magistrates with the threat of a custodial sentence hanging over him.
Perhaps even more worrying than the actions of one drunken idiot is the stance taken by Manchester United’s controversial rag of a fanzine Red Issue, whose name you might recognise for being the publication seized during the recent clash between Liverpool and United for having a ‘jokey’ cut-out-and-keep Ku Klux Klan mask in response to Luis Suarez’s ban for racially abusing Patrice Evra. Twitter was once again the medium used to spout bile, this time in an attempt to compare Muamba’s plight with the Munich Air disaster of 1958. Here are a few examples of their myopic insensitivity issued via their @RedIssue account:
Compare & contrast: 2: Bolton games called off after player collapses 2: United games called off after 8 players die #dianafication
More stats for all our fans out there: 0 – Bolton games postponed when 33 supporters died 2 – Lpool games postponed when 95 supporters died
What’s the big deal about Muamba? Drogba goes down like that every game and gets up without needing to go to hospital.
The lack of compassion is quite extraordinary. In their defence, some might point to comedians such as Frankie Boyle who routinely make risqué tasteless jokes and command fortunes from a baying audience for doing so but while the Scot uses such comments to tickle the devil inside us, Red Issue’s motive seems to be sparked by some warped moral crusade against their hated opponents.
Clearly, these actions are objectionable and utterly misplaced but equally those that are appealing for a permanent continuation of the mutual respect that has suddenly blossomed between rival fans should be careful what they wish for. Many a journalist, commentator and player over the last couple of days has called for those who pay to watch the game to continue to act in a friendly and fraternal manner but to do so would be to strip the game of much of the spark that appeals about watching a football match, whether at the stadium or on the television.
It is the tribalism of the game and the raw passions it exudes that maintains the sport’s pre-eminence in this country. How often do you here commentators talk about a team winning the ‘bragging rights’ after emerging victorious after a local derby? What about the dreaded walk into the office on a Monday morning after your team has lost to the one supported by the colleague sat at the desk next to you?
It is these emotions that drive a fan to urge their team forward in no uncertain terms, to direct unsavoury songs to visiting players and to revel in the misfortune of the opposing team. Of course, there are boundaries that shouldn’t be crossed, most notably racism and homophobia but also the inexplicable glorying in death such as chants mocking those who perished at Sheffield and Munich. This aspect of football fandom should never be accepted and its eradication should be constantly pursued even if it can never be entirely wiped out.
The fact is that tribalism can never be squeaky clean. But do we want it to be? Going to a game, having a beer with your mates and singing some (occasionally) witty if disrespectful songs about the other team is one of the seductive elements of going to a game. Singing in unison with a common cause is a comforting thing. It is the chance to be part of something bigger, a way of identifying with others and being identified in kind. A chance to share in the pain and glory with like-minded souls and know there will always be someone to celebrate or commiserate with. It is what has drawn middle-class friends of mine to the game in the first place which strikes me as being rather ironic given the criticism of the slow gentrifying of the national game.
An even starker irony is that many of the same journalists and commentators that are imploring fans to be more respectful also decry the relative lack of passion and atmosphere of the modern game in comparison with the halcyon days of yore. Either they want the gentrification of football to continue or they want the return of the rousing ambience from when rows of seats were expanses of terrace. They can’t have it both ways.
While it is clear the love-in will not continue when the fervour of the Premier League erupts again in the middle of this week, in Fabrice Muamba’s case let’s hope we can all remain of one voice in wishing the 23-year-old a full and speedy recovery.