Anyone following Emmanuel Adebayor’s improper conduct hearing in the news media recently could be forgiven for thinking that he’d been exonerated. The FA was praised in some quarters for not making a knee jerk reaction and maintaining a sense of perspective in its findings. Yet the player received a 2-match suspended ban and a £25,000 fine. Certainly, not a punishment to give him sleepless nights, but should he have been charged at all? Are we too harsh on players who are accused of incitement towards rival fans? Fans regularly report fairly innocuous actions on the part of players and managers to the police, for example Glenn Roeder for waving to the Newcastle section at West Ham after being the subject of upsetting personal abuse regarding his then-recent brain surgery. Are fans themselves criticised sufficiently for their part in such incidents? Is abuse acceptable?
No-one could deny that Adebayor suffered sustained strong abuse from the Arsenal fans before he ran the length of the pitch to celebrate his goal before them. He claims that he was the target of their criticism long before he left the club, and that they in effect forced him to leave (though many Arsenal fans dispute this). So isn’t it understandable that he felt the need to throw it back in their faces at the very first opportunity? I don’t know anyone who would enjoy several thousand people directing abuse of varying degrees of offensiveness at them. The media commentary that followed blamed him for the reaction of the Arsenal fans. ‘Missiles’ were thrown and a steward hurt. Of course his actions directly brought about that reaction, and his punishment reflected that, but should those fans escape censure for their own part in the incident? It must have been galling for them to see but that doesn’t absolve them for their own actions.
Football supporters penned in with like-minded individuals find themselves in a similar situation to rush-hour commuters sitting immobile in their vehicles; cocooned, indestructible, and therefore liable to disproportionate emotional outbursts. I’d wager none of those Arsenal fans would have reacted in the same way had they been in the City section at that game. It follows that their own senses of safety and immunity from the normal standards of public behaviour caused an over-reaction. I wouldn’t bellow abuse at a pub-league centre-half on a Sunday morning (mainly for fear of reprisal), but when it happens at a professional game we expect the player to react differently to the park clogger. I’m not trying to say that our football grounds should be havens of quiet meditation and sanitised musings on approved subjects. Just that if you want to hand it out you should be prepared to take it back, in whatever form it comes.
When referring to the “normal standards of public behaviour” however, like it or not there is a certain rough and tumble to modern life. People swear in the street, argue with strangers through car windows, shout down the phone at call-centre drones, and can be rude, aggressive and downright unpleasant as a default setting. The notion that we can somehow return to some mythical golden age from the past where everyone sipped tea, strolled across village greens and merely bowed politely to the braggard who had just cut them up in their carriage is false. It’s a selective view of the past, ignoring the 5-year-olds forced up chimneys, the entire social strata sent into lethal workplaces, and the grinding poverty experienced by the vast majority of the population with no hope of relief. Politeness and deference probably played little part in these lives.
Fans have always tried to affect the confidence of rival players so that their own team gains an advantage. Personal abuse meant to upset the player can have the same effect. Does that mean that abuse of any kind can be justified? Racial comments are widely agreed to be unacceptable these days thankfully, whereas questioning the referee’s parentage may as well be scheduled in the programme. Somewhere in between is a line that shouldn’t be crossed, but unfortunately too much is on the wrong side of that line. Mocking the victims of the Munich air crash or Hillsborough celebrates the tragic death of people whose relatives may well be present. Anyone who thinks their football allegiance justifies that has a strange sense of ethics. Likewise I could happily never again hear accusations of child abuse raised in a football ground – whether aimed at rival fans, managers or players.
There has to be a place in football for the odd off-colour exchange of views. Heavy-handed attempts to stamp out anything that distinguishes the terraces from a tea-party merely alienates further the power-brokers from the game’s traditional fan-base. Surely a better policy would be to target specific instances or types of offensive behaviour, as with the ‘Give Racism the Red Card’ campaign. The alternatives are a colourless game or one which only bigots can stomach.