Written by Andy Wood
Wednesday (26/10/2016) saw more widely reported problems at West Ham’s new Olympic Stadium, with another batch of fans being arrested over disorder and violence amongst supporters, and an investigation opening up over alleged homophobic leaflets being handed out before kick off. It goes without saying that West Ham have some of the best fans in the game, the old Boleyn Ground being a wonderful example of passionate supporters buying into a historic. community club. Sadly these all too frequent reports of unrest since their move to their ambitious new home have reminded fans that longstanding issues still linger. The beautiful game has come a long way but there are still blemishes.
credit Michael Miettinen
It would be quite a reach to suggest that firms and hooliganism are still running rife in our game but even the relatively sparse incidents that we see from time to time can have a knock on effect. The casual fan in particular, or families attending matches, are fairly likely to be put off going to matches if they become worried about their potential safety. In England it is not particularly common to worry about unrest in the stands- matches on the continent tend to bring out the worst, not only in local crowds but also in travelling English supporters. The recent troubles at the European Championships in France went a way to demonstrating this, and certainly it became a blight on the overall tournament.
A level of aggression is supported by the general football environment, and actually many people would agree that at a contained level it benefits an atmosphere. Finding a way of balancing this energy with the need to not let it get out of hand is probably asking a lot of anyone. Being aware of the incidents where positive aggression spills over would be a great start. A full blooded 50/50 tackle and the roar that comes from the stands spurring the side on- that’s what football’s all about. A group of players hounding the official, and their manager leading by example in a barrage of abuse, frustrating the crowd and souring the atmosphere- they say it’s the little things and less of behaviour like this would genuinely make matchdays more fun.
It’s worth asking questions about whether matchday security is genuinely up to the task. An effective police presence can be expensive and making such arrangements aren’t always easy. All too often the club employed stewards, admirable as their taking on the duty is, can be regarded as lazy, out of shape or simply ‘jobsworths’ who consider themselves in too high a regard, taking small matters too seriously and inciting further unrest. The stands can be volatile and effective training and subsequent composure would settle things down a lot better.
Ultimately this goes down as a very minor problem close to home but it’s one that needs looking at to improve the overall experience of going to a match.
The other issue that caught West Ham fans out midweek and one that has come back into the media spotlight over the past few days. There still has yet to be a player who has come out as being gay whilst playing in the top flight in England, although progress was made when former Aston Villa midfielder Thomas Hitzlsberger retrospectively came out after retirement. In general it’s been thought that the masculine environment in dressing rooms and in the stands has been offputting and would lead to gay players receiving abuse that would bring them down too far. The FA Chairman Greg Clarke suggested that such abuse would be ‘significant’- hardly a rallying cry from the head of the national game.
A recent poll from BBC 5 Live shows that a majority of views have shifted, but that significant negativity still remains. 82% of polled fans responded saying that they would be comfortable with an openly gay player- the remaining 18% said it would be best if they kept it to themselves. 7% of fans went so far as to say they wouldn’t watch their team if an openly gay player was representing them. Nearly half of fans surveyed had heard homophobic abuse in the stands. Generally it’s accepted that most fans would welcome gay players- it’s how they perform wearing the shirt that matters most, with lifestyle choices mostly disregarded. Players interviewed about the subject generally also show favouritism- even hard headed Joey Barton, when asked about the subject by Guardian journalist Owen Jones, made clear that he felt it wouldn’t be an issue.
Society at large has been slow to accept homosexual lifestyles- not until David Cameron’s stint as Prime Minister was same sex marriage legalised in the UK. Judging by the most recent numbers it seems inevitable that as the country catches up with the issue, football will with it.
With regards to the English game, it’s nice to able to say that great progress has been made in this area. The Premier League is perhaps the most diverse in the world, accepting players from all corners of the world and from all backgrounds. Much like homophobia, growing social acceptance has crossed over into the footballing society. Unfortunately there remain some incidents from time to time which blemish this positivity, and question marks are still bought up about representation in a coaching capacity. The existence of campaigns such as Kick It Out have forced the issue and despite the bad eggs we’re at a stage where any incidents are seen as isolated and are suitably decried- note the reaction Chelsea fans got when they racially abused a man on the Paris subway.
What we can say for sure is that we, as a footballing nation, are a long way ahead of Eastern European nations who have tarnished the progress made against racism in football. A documentary released in 2012 ahead of the European Championships that summer (held jointly between Poland and Ukraine) showed starkly the difficulties faced by ethnic minorities and foreign players playing in these countries- and an upcoming World Cup in Russia will unfortunately probably show much of the same. Direct abuse from considerably large sections of supporters remains commonplace in this leagues and it paints an ugly picture on the continental scene.
Where the issues stem from wider society, there is always a golden opportunity for football to come forward as a leading light. It has a community edge not seen in any other form of mass entertainment and this community has been a major force for change in the past- look no further than Hillsborough. Specifically focusing on English football, with a strong push unification, clubs providing leadership and education on social matters and clear belief and direction, these matters can realistically be eradicated for good and the image of football will be not only improved, it will have set a real standard.
credit Republic of Korea
For me, this is the issue that has plagued football more than anything else. It has reached the highest levels of our game and nowadays seems to be prevalent in all corners, even taking down England manager Sam Allardyce after one game in charge. The long standing president of FIFA, Sepp Blatter, had a reign that was peppered with allegations against his name. We now have World Cups taking place in ridiculous locations on the back of claims that the hosting privilege was bought out. Be it match fixing or dodgy agents, all areas of football are becoming affected and it’s one of the hardest issues to resolve due to it’s discreet and establishment nature.
How can this be addressed? The problems are so deep rooted and widespread that it’s hard to know where to start, especially given that when the significant step of Blatter leaving FIFA, his replacement Gianni Infantino has been met with similar allegations. If national bodies such as the FA are committed to clearing up the image of global football they need to take action from within, and cut ties with the individuals bringing the game into disrepute. Fans boycotting or protesting competitions that have been clearly bought would be a statement and another start toward community impact.
Is it likely that this issue will be resolved soon? No, it isn’t, but it’s damaging football institutionally and has completely tarnished the reputation of football. I genuinely believe all the smaller issues, all the socially relatable issues will go away, but this is the number one issue that needs to be bought down for the long term sake of the game.
What experiences have you had with these problems? Let us know in the comments below!
featured image by Ben Sutherland