Brendan O’Neill

Football fans are sick of being lectured

Football fans are sick of being lectured
(Photo by Jacques Feeney/Getty Images)
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There’s a menace on the terraces. At football grounds across the land, there are fans who are ruining the beautiful game for everyone else. They’re bringing their prejudices into football. They think nothing of grunting and groaning at people they don’t like, at people they view as inferior. It’s becoming intolerable.

No, I’m not talking about noisy, rowdy Millwall fans who do naughty things like boo the taking of the knee. I’m talking about the middle-class NuFootball mob. I’m talking about the Johnny-Come-Latelys to the beautiful game who turn up with the Guardian folded under their arm and a neatly cut sandwich in an eco-friendly stainless-steel lunchbox. These people worry me far more than the portly bloke shouting expletive-heavy abuse at the opposing team.

The recent fuss over Millwall confirmed just how problematic some of these well-spoken followers of football have become. Easily the most shocking thing about the Millwall booing was not the incident itself — fans booing and jeering? Fetch my smelling salts! — but the reaction to it. The response was unhinged. Perusing the sports columns and listening to Radio 4 types you’d be forgiven that Hitler himself had rocked up to The Den to unveil plans for a new race war. In truth, all that happened is that football fans did what football fans do — express themselves forcefully and colourfully.

You’re shocked by booing at a football match? I’m sorry, but where did you think you were — at church? Football isn’t a bake sale. It isn’t a Guardian live event. It isn’t the opera. It’s football. The rules here are different. People speak freely, loudly, offensively. It’s one of the last parts of the country in which you can do that. Please don’t drain the rough libertine spark from football like you have from everything else.

Of course, the go-to explanation for why Millwall fans booed is that they are racist. Of course they are, right? I mean, they’re Millwall fans. The least reconstructed fans in the game. Have you seen them? White, working-class, a little overweight, gaudy tattoos — it just screams racism.

That is the terrible irony at the heart of the NuFootball freakout over the booing Millwall fans — the freakout was far more riddled with prejudice than the booing itself. There is no proof whatsoever that the booing fans were motivated by racial hatred. Indeed, a Millwall supporters’ group says they are fully on board with the ideal of racial equality; they just don’t like the divisive ideology of Black Lives Matter. Last night, at the Millwall vs QPR game, the taking of the knee was replaced by players lining up behind an anti-racist banner — and Millwall fans cheered that.

So why the rush to paint these fans as racist scum? Because that’s the true prejudice infecting football today — the idea that fans are backward and ignorant, a Neanderthal mob in dire need of re-education. In their unrestrained fury with a small number of booing fans, the NuFootball elites unwittingly exposed their own ugly biases. We all have to stand against prejudice, they cry, while heaping prejudice on fans who look and sound different to them.

This is fundamentally why taking the knee has become such a core part of football over the past six months: because football fans are increasingly viewed as a seething, racially unaware mass who must have their minds cleaned out by their woke superiors.

From the footballing authorities to the big broadcasters to the sporting commentariat of the liberal media, they’ve all cheered the weekly spectacle of players taking the knee. This is essential messaging, apparently. It must be drummed into the thick skulls of the vulgar football hordes that racism is a bad thing. It’s positively missionary: do-gooders descending on to the morally foreign territory of working-class football spaces to enlighten the natives.

I bet that when theatres and opera return, the actors won’t take the knee every single night. I bet the editor won’t walk on to the stage of every Guardian live event for the next six months and get down on one knee. I bet the next televised Wimbledon won’t flash constant messages about how horrible racism is, as has been the case with televised football games for months on end.

And that’s because the people who frequent those kinds of gatherings are considered good, decent, aware. Football fans, on the other hand, that rough-speaking throng that sits down with a pint to watch a game in a pub — they need to be awokened; they need to be saved; they need to be subjected, week in, week out, to the ritualistic spectacle of taking the knee.

What’s depressing about this is that football had successfully become one of the most racially fair professions in the country. Yes, there was terrible racism in the game in the 1970s and 1980s. But that has almost completely fizzled out. Thirty per cent of professional players are black. White and black fans alike cheer them on, side by side. The last thing the beautiful game needs is to be hijacked by the ugly cult of identity politics, with its insistence that white people are inherently racist and black people are perennial victims. Get lost. We’re trying to watch football here.

Those Millwall fans booed because they came to watch a game, not to be subjected to a lecture in critical race theory. I suspect fans across the country feel uncomfortable with the colonisation of their sport by the earnest, woke middle classes. Football is being sanitised to suit the tastes of the NuFootball lot. There’s no more standing up in grounds, language is tightly policed, fans can be banned for offensive chants. They’re trying to turn football into a safe space, and that’s disastrous.

If football falls, there will be no remaining quarter of public life in which people can cut loose, temporarily brush aside social decorum, and engage in mass, democratic, enlivening acts of passion. We can’t allow it to happen. I’m thinking of starting a new campaign: Kick Middle-Class Prigs out of Football.