This week I am going to take a break from my usual and reflect on The Euro finals. It was a good finals with plenty of exciting matches although 2 teams with a cautious approach got to the final. But that is not what I want to talk about. It is racism and bad behaviour.
Is England to blame?
One of the earliest major incidents was the Christian Eriksen one. It turned Denmark into the neutrals favourite and meant a level of respect was shown by fans and players alike when playing them, except for England who booed their national anthem and their players as they did other teams.
A great player no matter what team
Several teams got beaten on penalties, but I didn’t hear of any scapegoating of players or racist abuse because of it, except for England.
I have watched many finals of all types since I started watching and I have never seen players taking off their medals before, except for England.
England take the lead in the dark side
England rightly take pride in being the home of football. They seem to take a perverse pride in also being the worst in bad behaviour. I started going to matches in England in the 70’s and it was a revelation how much police there were and how tight the security was. The bile between opposing fans and the many hooligan firms that cropped up was frightening. Now pubs could erupt in sickening violence if a stray innocent(s) from the wrong side popped in.
This was in general contrast to Ireland where I remember being at an Ireland match in Lansdowne road and a group of Shamrock Rovers and Sligo Rovers fans were congregated in a pub. They started singing songs slagging their opponents and the reply was always an even wittier song which seemed to be made up on the spot. It was great fun.
Are England the worst?
Now, only an idiot would suggest that bad behaviour in football is confined to England but are they the worst? I say yes. If I am aware that England fans are about, I am cautious and ready to get out quickly if necessary. I have also had great times with England supporters and have been in many grounds in the home section without getting into trouble as an away supporter. I learned to jump inside. I have seen England fans wanting to take on the home supporters though when in the same situation and I cannot understand their logic at all. They take a perverse pride in standing up for their colours.
This whole area is complicated, though. Football has slowly but surely become a place where cheating and bad behaviour is tolerated. I saw Robbie Savage of Wales commenting on the Euros recently and he wanted the Wales players to start kicking their opponents to stop them going up the field. A commentator should never encourage cheating but it happens all the time. The players need to be clever is often the euphemism for cheating. Pull a jersey slyly, take a dive, back into a player and go down so you get the foul, surround the referee, claim everything, play mind games and probably others that I am not even aware of. It is endemic and it is not going away soon.
Can we show love instead?
Would you do that to your own kid?
So now we have Bukayo Saka as the touchlight for the darkness that is in football? Nonsense, surely? It seems like he has done 2 things wrong, he missed the last penalty and he is black. 2 things he can do nothing about makes it acceptable for him to be abused? Gareth Southgate and Stuart Pearce memorably missed crucial penalties for England and got hammered for it, yes, but not for the colour of their skin.
It is horrible for any player to be abused for something they can do nothing about. They make a mistake on the pitch and get hounded, sometimes for the rest of their career. Emmanuel Eboue was one such at Arsenal. He fell foul of the wrong type of Arsenal supporter and his career never recovered. When you are playing, you have been selected by the manager and will try your best. But you will miss goals and passes, give away fouls, get sent off, score an own goal, miss a penalty, fail to stop a player or move to an opposing side and myriad other things can happen even to the best players. This can mean you get booed all your life. And if you are black or a race that is not white, you get that anyway. It is certain and inevitable even if you are a big superstar who is well liked like our own Wrighty.
What’s the answer?
So what can be done? First thing to look at for me, is the waters that this abuse swims in. It is racism, it is hooliganism, it is cheating, it is club and country tribalism, it is bad behaviour. There have been so many efforts to curb racism and it is difficult to say with what success. The same with all the other elements mentioned. Some progress has been made but mostly in the area of security, banning and punishments. I feel that we need to reach people’s hearts first.
The only way I can think of to do so is to imagine the people being abused are our own children. I would be heartbroken at the abuse Bukayo Saka is receiving if I was his parent. My beautiful fun teenager who has stupendous talent is given horrific abuse because a goalkeeper made a good decision, and he is black? It is nonsense, surely? My pride in his amazing achievement at being selected as the crucial penalty taker for his country is dependent on sporting achievement being suspended? That he has to win? If, in any sports, only one person or team can win, it is not a sport. We have to be able to accept that the other side can win, and congratulate them, and determine that next time it will be me, us.
They ARE our own children so we should treat them as such. We feel their pain, we let out a collective groan of disappointment that we couldn’t win but we rush over to hug them, to show we love their courage and we support them no matter what.
Did he know he would get such hate when he grew up?
I pinpointed England at the start. We must not be fooled, though, it is in all countries to a greater or lesser extent. We need to call out our own fouls, stop applauding any cheating, stop booing players, countries and refs, and finally, start treating all participants as if they are our own children.
Can we make a start? Can we stop calling Tottenham shit? Can we stop saying we hate them and standing up to show it? Have fun with the opponents, but remember they are somebody’s children and an accident of a different sort could have made us Spud supporters.
Or is that too much to ask?
Gareth Southgate showed us the way