Lawrence Parker looks at alienation in British soccer
It is impossible for any football supporter to ignore a deepening alienation around the British game. The new season that started in August has been the host to a welter of controversy.
This is partly, of course, a reflection of the politico-economic turmoil in society at large. Clubs such as West Ham are already feeling the pinch, after its Icelandic owner, Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson, ex-chairman of Landsbanki, lost an estimated £360 million. One fears for League Two clubs such as Bournemouth, Luton and Rotherham, struggling with crippling debts and docked points - not exactly an investment opportunity at the best of times.
Alongside this has been a battle for control over who directs the teams themselves. Traditionally, British football managers have been the symbolic and actual director of the team’s affairs on the pitch, deciding on which players they wish to buy, who plays on a Saturday (or Sunday, Monday and so on these days) and the team’s style and formation (Alex Ferguson of Manchester United would be the classic contemporary example of this type of manager). However, this role has often been disputed by owners and chairmen.
Increasingly, billionaire proprietors are dissatisfied with this state of affairs and have looked for more direct control over their investments on the pitch through a more complex managerial structure. Thus, Alan Curbishley resigned as West Ham boss in September after claiming that he no longer controlled the club’s transfer policy. Kevin Keegan left Newcastle in the same month, albeit in more spectacular fashion. Keegan made a similar critique to that of Curbishley, with owner Mike Ashley and “football-related” executive director Dennis Wise accused of undermining Keegan’s role. Queens Park Rangers recently sacked manager Iain Dowie - it has been strongly rumoured that this happened after co-owner and chairman Flavio Briatore decided to dictate team selection; Dowie refused to play ball.
But it is at Tottenham Hotspur where the wheels fell off most spectacularly. The club is just beginning to turn itself around under new manager Harry Redknapp after a disastrous start to the season had left Spurs floundering at the bottom of the Premiership. Sacked manager Juande Ramos was not the key villain of the piece (despite the popularity of his predecessor, Martin Jol, stupidly sacked last season after guiding Spurs to two consecutive top-five finishes). Rather it was “sporting director” Damien Comolli (now also sacked) and chairman Daniel Levy who seemed to be the butt of the fans’ ire after presiding over a disastrous transfer policy that saw the offloading of a quality group of strikers (Dimitar Berbatov, Jermaine Defoe and Robbie Keane) without adequate replacements. Given that Comolli is still in post, it appears that Redknapp will initially have a measure of control over the team’s affairs denied to Ramos. This one, however, is likely to run and run.
All of which only increases the sense of alienation that supporters feel toward the game. These power struggles are a reflection of a basic fact: British football is a rich man’s plaything. Witness the recent spectacular buy-out of Manchester City by Abu Dhabi United Group Investment and Development Ltd, instantly propelling City into the ranks of the world’s richest clubs. City fans may still be rejoicing at this turn of events, but the future is likely to be one of faceless ‘directors’ overseeing the team’s affairs, while the manager manages in name only. Mark Hughes already looks under pressure after City’s unconvincing start to the season.
The relationship between supporters and the more traditional managers of the 1970s and 1980s era was a complicated one. Traditional football managers were ruthless and dictatorial. Archetypal maverick figures of the era, such as Bill Shankly and Brian Clough, combined an authoritarian streak with a decidedly populist bent. There was a sort of rough emotional compact between the manager who controlled the team and the supporters who controlled parts of the terraced areas (albeit with a brutalising culture that could brandish violence and racism with alacrity). British football supporters largely lost even symbolic control over ‘their’ grounds over a decade ago, although this control is often still exercised in town centres and pubs away from the stadium itself.
The football manager was (and is) a highly visible figure on the touchline, but what if that person is merely a stuffed dummy for impersonal financial forces represented by a more normal management structure (normal, that is, by the standards of capitalist society at large)? Football supporters become deprived of even the appearance of having an individual to hold to account and yet more of their symbolic control is thus eroded. The ‘manager’ merely becomes the punch-bag for frustrations that cannot find a focal point when the only real ‘controller’ is a financial balance sheet.
It is with this in mind that we can turn to Peter Tatchell’s letter (Weekly Worker October 9) regarding Spurs’ fans homophobic abuse of Sol Campbell on September 28 during a game against Portsmouth. Chants included: “We don’t give a fuck if you’re hanging from a tree, you Judas cunt with HIV.” While I personally thought these chants were stupid and would wish them stopped, Tatchell’s response was entirely wrong. His letter (I am not sure if it had been substantially cut) read rather like an article in a tabloid newspaper where an incident is stripped of its context, presented as thoroughly irrational and combined with a call for some kind of ‘action’. In fact, this alludes to a kind of ‘string ’em up’ mentality.
It remains to be explained why the chants took on this particularly furious form now. After all, Campbell left Spurs for more successful local rivals Arsenal in 2001 and has been subjected to taunts of ‘Judas’ ever since (if I was a Spurs fan I would feel exactly the same about Campbell on this point; particularly after he told the media he would never play for Arsenal). However, anyone with any knowledge of what is happening at Spurs this season would see that Campbell has been a convenient punch-bag for the supporters’ more general disenchantment with events. Hence, their abuse took on a particularly ugly form.
Campbell is not alone in being vilified as a result of a more general malaise. Ashley Cole was booed by large parts of the England support during the game against Kazakhstan earlier this month after a poor back-pass allowed the opposition to score. As supporters who rang in to various phone-ins attested, Cole was being booed for his greed (he famously thought he was being underpaid by Arsenal at £60,000 a week before his transfer to Chelsea in 2006) and for his status as a symbol of how out of touch ‘our’ millionaire footballers are thought to be.
But in this situation, where supporters are lashing out at things beyond their control, Peter Tatchell’s solution appears to be to empower the football authorities further (ie, those authorities that have fleeced, regimented and disenfranchised supporters over the last two decades). Peter talks of a “one-match ban” on all Spurs fans “being justified”. Presuming that fans are not expected to ban themselves, who will enforce this ban? As if he realises he is drifting onto an authoritarian tack, Tatchell says: “Punishing offenders is not the ideal or only action required. Persuading them to ditch their bigotry is a better long-term solution.” Quite. But, in fact, the only solution to bigotry will come from the supporters themselves. Peter makes various demands on the Football Association to do this or that - as if the FA is a neutral institution that can democratically work for supporters! In reality, the FA is an institution that has partly presided over the current dismemberment of the game (although it does not directly control the Premier League or the Football League, it is tied into both bodies).
Tatchell also says: “The FA would not have sat on its hands if the abuse had been of a racist nature. Thanks to the pioneering Kick It Out anti-racist campaign, which is backed by the FA, individual clubs and the FA now take a much tougher stance against racial abuse. Why isn’t there the same robust response when it comes to homophobic taunts?” There is some truth to what Tatchell says about double standards, but what of these “pioneering” official anti-racist campaigns?
Have they helped cut down racist abuse? They have probably contributed, but the single most important factor in the decline has been British football teams being internationalised and represented by non-white players. Racism simply became an absurdity to any fan that wanted to support their team properly - simple partisanship won out. Thus it was common for Mark Walters of Aston Villa to be racially abused by his own supporters at times in the mid-1980s (although at Villa there seemed to be little of the orchestrated racism of clubs such as Leeds in the same period); by the time Tony Daley was in his pomp for Villa in the early 1990s, explicit racism had all but vanished. So I am thoroughly sceptical as to the claims for official anti-racism’s healthy impact.
Also, official anti-racism in football is another useful means to harangue and process football supporters. It is no coincidence that campaigns such as Kick It Out have come around at a time when fans are so thoroughly disenfranchised and exploited by the football authorities. It is incredibly useful for the authorities to be able to play this politically correct card alongside what is an attempt to more closely control football supporters in the stadiums. Anti-racism is thus not a standalone case in which we can treat the authorities (and the state) as suddenly neutral and benevolent in the cause of the common good.
To use an example from my own experience, in May 2005 Villa were at Spurs, a game I attended with my brother. Shortly before the match ended my brother was hauled out of the ground by two burly stewards, with no explanation. The stewards had been hyperactive in the away end all afternoon, policing the Villa support (a large proportion of which had been drinking heavily - which is fairly usual). A couple of hours later my brother emerged from the police station looking bemused. The Spurs stewards had alleged that he was making a Nazi salute toward the Spurs fans (who have a large Jewish support). There was no evidence for this on the videotapes supplied by the stewards and my brother spent 10 minutes explaining that he did know what a Nazi salute meant and that he was not a fascist. He was allowed to leave without charge and the police concluded that it was a case of “over-zealous” stewarding. This is a small example of what can happen when official anti-racism is explicitly allied to its real modus operandi - control and policing.
Homophobia, racism and sexism need to be eradicated in football grounds by the supporters. There can be no reliance on the authorities to enforce their will on these issues - the potential democratic costs are too great. To do so is only to keep the fox in charge of the chicken run. The best guarantee of this self-organisation is free speech. Football supporters should have the right to say exactly what they want inside and outside stadiums, even if this means a greater incidence of various forms of abuse (which I am not advocating). Football supporters need more rights, up to and including control of the game, at all levels. This is the only path to eradicating the kind of homophobic abuse that was aimed at Sol Campbell.
One rather suspects that Peter Tatchell’s approach, lining up with the popular media to call for more ‘action’ from the authorities, will only breed more homophobes.