Football fans are a hot topic at the moment after this weekend’s incidents. The altercation between Chris Smalling and a fan would have been more of a talking point, if the fan hadn’t ‘only’ shoved Smalling in the back, seemingly with not much force or perhaps Smalling's stature meant it wasn’t easy to push him around. The fan was essentially laughing at and mocking Smalling after the goal was conceded, much like players on the pitch might do to their opponents if a particular player wound them up. That itself isn’t acceptable but it was nothing compared to what happened to Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish when a Birmingham fan came onto the pitch and attacked him. This was more than a push, this was a full swing of the arm to land a punch on Grealish which turned into a bit more of a clothesline. Either way, it was an act of pure malice to try and hurt the player. Grealish seemed okay and both sets of players gathered round him and looked to subdue the fan if they were needed. The fact Birmingham fans cheered as the fan saluted them showed there seems to be no sense of right and wrong when it comes to supporting your own club.
There’s something about football that changes people. Some people seem just naturally angry or combative and football is a good excuse to channel that in a way that is deemed socially acceptable or not in the case of violent clashes. Mild-mannered people can become angry when they watch football; anger towards their own team, anger to the other team or anger towards the referee. It is unlikely that a lot of these people will swear at and insult people so willingly other than at a football match. Many of them probably went to matches as kids, heard all the swearing and adapted to it as the norm. Almost every chant has swearing and so it is just accepted as commonplace in football that you will hear a lot of effing and blinding. In fairness, a lot of these chants are humorous rather than malicious.
No matter how strange it seems, it is just accepted that footballers will receive verbal abuse and get on with it no matter how colourful the language. Sometimes there are ‘valid’ reasons to boo and abuse players. It is rare for a team to properly berate their own player (more than a groan about a misplaced pass) but it can happen if they are playing terribly. It is a much safer environment to boo your own team as a whole if the overall performance isn’t good. If the referee gives or doesn’t give certain decisions, he is left open for abuse and ridicule.
The strangest thing of all however is actually booing the opposition. Sometimes it’s obvious, if fans believe an opposition player has overreacted, ‘won a foul’, got away with something or done something to get another player in trouble then that player will become the pantomime villain. However, you often see players who have had no particular impact on a game and have no history with their opponents shouted and screamed at by the fans as they go to take a throw-in; that’s where there is hatred for the sake of hatred among football fans, ‘you are the opposition, therefore we must scream at you.’ It could be seen as an intimidation factor to try and get under the skin of the players but when you see a man whose face has turned pure red from anger, it hardly seems like just a well thought out tactic.
When people say footballers should be able to take the abuse because it comes from the territory, I can accept that to an extent only because it’s just ‘the way football is’. The problem comes from specific abuse. I don’t mean abuse towards a specific player but abuse that is aimed at a player personally. If players are jeered for whatever they have done in the game, their history with their opponents, being mocked for their ability or for anything else going on in the game, that’s the part they have to accept is part and parcel of the game no matter how much people dislike it. The problem lies with fans who bring up issues of race, sexuality or religion or other things. Only then does the abuse feel like an attack on the human being rather than the football ‘character’ the fans see. It does occasionally happen that there may be a tragedy regarding a player which the fans pick up on and mock as well; that is definitely over the line.
It’s true that, even though it’s always been there, there seems to be a rise in fan violence and an increase in derogatory chants. It’s also true that it reflects how society is at the moment. People seem to be more openly expressive about a number of offensive views and there are always people who resort to violence over any small dispute.
‘It’s just the way football is’ is really the only conclusion to make of it all. Fans will always see the opposing team’s fans and players as the enemy no matter how little rivalry there actually is between the two clubs; there is no notion of ‘may the best team win.’ A small minority of fans will look for an excuse for violence and an even smaller minority will think it is a good idea to run onto the pitch and interact, in any way, with the players. The bigger issues like offensive chanting seem to be a reflection of society rather than something that has drastically changed in football. While the aggression and tribalism may seem strange to outsiders looking in, this isn’t the part of football that causes shock. Instead, the discriminatory verbal attacks and the physical attacks on players is the main worry and the thing that does need fixing first in the fractured world of football.