John Terry — the gift that keeps on giving. It is not enough that this stoic and rat-faced footballer should have provoked the most absurd and hilarious court case I have yet seen. Now it looks like there’ll be another one, perhaps even funnier, predicated upon a reaction to the fact that he wasn’t convicted of racially abusing another footballer, Anton Ferdinand, as everybody seemed to wish. Some chap ‘tweeted’ that Ashley Cole, who gave evidence on behalf of Terry, was a ‘choc ice’ — and of course now the police are involved. They had to be: it is deeply racist to liken black people to items of confectionery or popular snacks.
Interestingly, in a semantic sense, it is the ‘ice’ bit of the description which is considered offensive, not the ‘choc’ bit. It is a term which implies that Ashley is black on the outside, which I think is OK, but white on the inside, which is definitely not. In other words he is a traitor to his race. There are many similar terms — Oreo, Bounty, coconut and so on — all of which suggest the same thing, that the subject is an ‘Uncle Tom’. I must say, ‘choc ice’ would not be the comestible I would choose to represent Mr Cole, if asked to do so. I’ve always thought of him as more of a Double Decker — a crisp layer of biscuit topped by a moist and sultry nougat. I am not sure if this is racist or not, but I daresay I will find out soon enough.
Aside from demanding that John Terry be further persecuted, this time by the Football Association, the middle-class sections of the media and the commentariat have also got it into their heads that football in general needs to change, too. I think they mean change still further, but we’ll come back to that. It is less the suspicion of racism that most appals them — although it does appal them, of course — but the more generalised discourse which takes place both in the stands and on the pitch, as evidenced by the fabulous Derek and Clive exchanges revealed in court between Terry and Ferdinand. Aghast that footballers and supporters habitually use rude language, they are now demanding that the FA, or the courts, or the government stamp it all out.
Why, they ask, should football be exempt from the sort of strictures that apply at other entertainments? They say such appalling things to one another and the crowds are absolutely horrid! You certainly don’t hear that sort of stuff at Twickers, or Ascot or Glyndebourne, do you? And so we have the final battle in the long class war which has been fought in football over the past 20 years, a war in which every battle has been won, comprehensively, by the middle class without recourse to a penalty shoot-out.
First they made us sit down. Then they stopped us smoking. Then they increased the price of tickets to make it impossible for the traditional supporter base of the top teams — Spurs, Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea and so on — to attend regularly, if at all. And finally, we will be enjoined to express ourselves, henceforth, in the manner in which one might address an editorial meeting of the Guardian, while watching our teams lose one-nil at home to Northampton Town or someone.
There is a structural and linguistic schism between the way the new football supporters — largely well-heeled and largely stupid — enjoy the game and the way the old school enjoy the game. And so these battles are fraught with misunderstandings. For example, at the weekend, one middle-class lady journalist expressed in anguished, horrified tones the fact that visiting supporters to Tottenham Hotspur were apt to refer to the home contingent disparagingly as ‘the Yids’. How can they get away with this explicit anti-Semitism, she howled? She was clearly unaware that Tottenham’s supporters cheerfully refer to themselves as ‘the Yids’, or sometimes ‘Yid Army’, and that the term has long since lost any meaningful one-to-one relationship with its origins. Derrida would have understood, I think. It is an example of the rather brusque black humour which pertains at football matches and which is one of the reasons I enjoy going week in week out.
I think I speak for quite a few of the old-school fans here when I say that I don’t go to watch an entertainment, much as one might approach a performance of The Good Woman of Szechuan at the National, for example — or even to exult in victory. Victory is nice when it occurs, of course, and neat passing football is pleasant to behold from time to time: but that’s not why we’re there. It’s instead a chance to meet up with mates who share a common background, to have a few drinks, let off a bit of steam and to support the club which represents your area, the place you’re from, by hurling obscenities at the opposing fans, the opposing team, the referee and the opposing manager in his dugout. That’s what I enjoy — and for 100 years, more or less, nobody has tried to stop us doing this. (Please don’t fall for the argument that being rude at football matches is a new obsession of the untermensch; it’s no worse now than it ever was.)
The winning doesn’t matter terribly much — this is the big difference with the arriviste fans. If my own team lost its next 150 games and ended up playing in the fifth tier of the game, the Conference, we would still have a hard core of 8,000 or so who’d dutifully turn up to sing ‘We’re shit and we know we are’ for 90 minutes. This is important: in ripping the game from its origins, the football authorities have ensured that a lot of clubs have become very rich. But that new support is contingent in a way the old support never was, and one of these days it will evaporate.