Not too long ago, I was out for dinner with some friends, one of whom brought along her university course mate. Before long, another friend struck up a conversation with him, and inevitably, they started chatting about football. “So, what team do you support?”, asked my friend, casually. “Liverpool Football Club!”, was the response. My friend immediately broke into a fit of laughter. Noticeably unamused, the Liverpool fan said curtly, “You’re a Man U fan, aren’t you?”
This scene isn’t at all uncommon amongst football fans throughout Malaysia (if not the world). Yes, in terms of courtesy, it was wrong of him to react in such a manner (particularly towards someone he had just met), yet somehow most people have come to accept this sort of behaviour as part and parcel of football.
“Banter”, they call it. Defined as “a good-humoured, playful way of exchanging remarks”, it has, and has always had, a place in sport. Indonesians tease their Malaysian friends (and vice versa) when their countrymen beat the other’s in badminton; a schoolboy pokes fun at his classmate after winning a game of hopscotch; I’ve even had a friend call me up within minutes of his EPL team beating mine to shout “HAAAAA HAAAAA!”. A good sport takes it in his stride, knowing that it’s all a bit of fun between mates and that in the future, the shoe could so easily be on the other foot, such are the vagaries of sport.
It’s all fun and games when it involves friends who don’t take the jibes seriously, but where do we draw the line? Once sticks and stones have been traded for spears and grenades?
In recent weeks many of us have been poring over details of what certain footballers have said, instead of what they did on the pitch. Back in October, Patrice Evra’s accusation that Luis Suarez racially abused him has opened up a can of worms. Since that incident, news of racism in football have come forth, either by other players (John Terry on Anton Ferdinand), fans (an offensive Tweet sent to Sammy Ameobi), and even a club’s own supporters (a Chelsea fan towards Daniel Sturridge).
Long before an FA report (which came a month after the incident occurred) that they will be charging Suarez for using “abusive and/or insulting words and/or behaviour towards Manchester United’s Patrice Evra contrary to FA rules.”, fans had already stoutly sided with their club’s player. It didn’t matter that there was no solid evidence at the time, most fans had already made their mind up – judging the players solely on their reputation and the club they play for. Many Liverpool fans condemned Evra as a liar out to smear Suarez’s name and reputation, spurred by their belief that he was the boy who cried wolf (having been involved with two previous allegations of racism). In return, United fans slated Suarez, who despite his immense talent, has an unpleasant reputation (mainly for denying Ghana a spot in the World Cup semi-finals with a blatant handball).
It is unfortunate (but somehow inevitable), that the row against racism has since morphed into a club-vs.-club feud, with Liverpool and United’s heated rivalry behind plenty of mud-slinging by supporters of both parties, if not in person, then through the anonymity of the Internet. Twitter is often filled with hate and swearing between both sets of fans, while online football forums are usually no better. However, such malice is no longer confined to the web.
A little closer to home, The Star has been running a daily SMS side-column where readers can text in their opinions and see it published in one of Malaysia’s most widely-circulated news publications. Although it’s an admirable effort to encourage reader participation (plus, it makes for an entertaining skim), it has unintentionally brought out the worst in some texters. Entries have exceedingly veered towards the incendiary, and despite the occasional sensible contributor who asks for everyone to get along or support local teams instead, the SMS section remains dominated by Premier League fans, who frequently fire barbs at each other’s club of choice.
Regrettably, several of their columnists exhibit some of these traits as well. Since the start of this season, The Star have introduced a “Club Column” where writers who support the “Big Five” (Man City, Man U, Chelsea, Liverpool, and Arsenal) produce a short article every Saturday about their team’s match that weekend. Some brilliantly craft informative pieces about their opponents, while others go a bit over the top with their “club loyalty”. For example, their Arsenal columnist called Spurs “scum” (The Star, October 1st), while their Chelsea-supporting writer has written that he’ll “stand behind John Terry no matter what” (in reference to his own race row), and that “Yossi Benayoun deserves to be shot for spitting on our face after all the support we offered him” (The Star, November 5th) because he joined rivals Arsenal on loan this season. While I admit that it is a club column after all, and as such, the writer is free to assert his loyalty to his club, such bias and blatant malevolence is wholly inappropriate for a national newspaper. What an example he’s setting for young, impressionable Chelsea fans.
It’s easier said than done, but young fans should be brought up knowing that there’s more to football than the club you support. The belief that “He plays for my club, therefore I must defend him at all costs.”, should be suspended, with rational judgement taking precedence instead. Take your jersey and the rose-tinted glasses off, and survey the facts as a coherent human being.
Legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly once said, “Someone said to me ‘To you football is a matter of life or death!’ and I said ‘Listen, it’s more important than that.’”. Many will agree, but I don’t. Of course, football fans are free to voice their opinion, but as with most things, there must be limits. The “mob mentality” will always exist, where the thought that fans must unconditionally support their team, lest their loyalty be called into question, but our perspective should neither have to be obstructed by our allegiances, nor be clouded by the shirt one man is wearing.
Darren Goon believes that sports writers or columnists have a responsibility to be impartial. Write with your head and your heart in equal measure. Unless you contribute to a club blog, in which case you can feel free to exhibit as much bias as you like, as seen here.