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Spectator sport

Ugly face of the beautiful game

3 November 2012

9:00 AM

3 November 2012

9:00 AM

Football, bloody hell, as that old bruiser Sir Alex Ferguson twinkled bibulously at the turn of the century. But it’s not looking so good now, Sir Alex. Bloody hell, it’s in a pretty dark place: the game’s a beauty of course, but otherwise nothing but racial abuse, wholesale cheating, assault, shocking levels of officiating and terrace savagery. And that’s on a good day. Even the great gum-chewer himself is reduced to ranting about how there was no need for Chelsea’s Fernando Torres to go down, and get wrongly sent off, just because Jonny Evans whacked his leg. ‘I would never have missed that chance [to go on and score]’, said Sir Alex. ‘I wouldn’t have gone down.’ Of course not.

Let’s hope things can only get better. The other day a 21-year-old Leeds fan (natch) called Aaron Crawley jumped out of the stands at Hillsborough to belt Sheffield Wednesday’s goalkeeper Chris Kirkland in the face before gambolling back to his pals. He got a pretty risible four months, but at least it wasn’t just a spot of community service. He also came from Cheltenham, for heaven’s sake, a Leeds fan: the world really is beginning to spin off its axis. The assault took place on a Friday night in a frenzied derby atmosphere, with fans singing obscene chants at both managers. The next day you could watch a stonking Heineken Cup rugby match in Cardiff where the Blues were topped by glitzy Toulon, as 10,000 fans stood together sipping beer in the wintry sunshine. Where would you rather be?

This hideous stuff shouldn’t be happening. How about forcing Leeds to play their next three home matches behind closed doors? That should show the away fans. Make the clubs, the managers, the officials and the players deal with the tide of social problems sweeping through the game. When the Serbia Under-21 fans behave like racist thugs then force them to play behind closed doors. If banana skins are thrown on to the field, stop the game, find the perpetrators and punish them. Zero tolerance. If the game is disrupted, so be it. Take players off at the first sign of bad behaviour on the terraces. Fans will quickly start to police themselves once a few thugs are destroying the game. Use video monitors, and more thorough policing and stewarding; treat obscene chants in a stadium as you would on the street. Michel Platini and Sepp Blatter have to put their heads together.

Clubs as well as national associations must start to behave. Chelsea’s appallingly negligent treatment of toxic John Terry has done as much as anything to allow this year-old sore to fester right at the heart of our sporting culture. The fine was pointless, not just because it was so laughable but because it had no sense of re-education: far better to  make him work with underprivileged black kids. The barracking of Rio Ferdinand by Chelsea fans at Sunday’s match at Stamford Bridge because his brother had stood up to Terry was both predictable and shocking. Tribalism in football overwhelms any moral perspective. Your players are always, excuse me, whiter than white. The other side is always wrong. Segregation encourages tribalism. If fans mixed as they do at rugby, they might appreciate good football whoever it is played by. Yeah, I know, dream on.

It’s easy to blame money, so let’s do just that. Once footballers started being paid obscene salaries, even in lower leagues, it broke the link with communities and warped any sense of duty and responsibility. Players and managers now seem to operate with little concept of responsibility and the moral boundaries of barbarians. They don’t have to think of anyone else so they don’t. And this sets an example to the fans.

Football, bloody hell.

Roger Alton is an executive editor at The Times.

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