One of the more dispiriting cycles in which an element of English football support finds itself trapped reared its ugly head again last night. The unfailing of a flag with the word “Istanbul” spray-painted across the middle of it was yet another example of the culture of perpetual abuse and contempt that some seem to actively enjoy these days, and those of us that sit on the outside peering in can only watch in wonder at the mentality of anybody that would seek to revel in the death of anybody in the name of what passes for “banter” these days. Yet to take one such incident in isolation without considering the wider phenomenon of people that behave like this would be pointless, because there can be little question that those that took the time to prepare and then unfurl such a flag certainly didn’t do so in an isolated, one-off incident.
It wasn’t merely a minority of Manchester United supporters in an isolated incident that were behaving like this inside Elland Road last night, of course. There were plenty of Leeds United supporters that seemed for than happy to offer their own “tribute” to the 1958 Munich Air Disaster – a common enough trope amongst people if a certain mindset who seem unable to enjoy any sort of rivalry unless they can also denigrate their rivals in the name of supporting their team. Indeed, many match-going supporters will be familiar with those that seem more concerned with gesturing at rival supporters than getting behind their own team. There are plenty of examples at other clubs too, of course, from the Liverpool supporters that took a Steaua Bucharest 1986 flag to a Merseyside derby a couple of years ago (because it seems to be fair game to taunt Everton supporters over their not being able to compete in that years European Cup on account of the Heysel Stadium Disaster) to Chelsea supporters with their songs about Auschwitz aimed at Spurs supporters. There are seem to be very few clubs at which a proportion of the support isn’t plenty capable of acting like this.
For the majority of supporters such behaviour remains anathema, but there remain plenty that would seek to excuse the behaviour of this element of their own support whilst continuing to be offended by the identical behaviour aimed at them. Such an environment creates a perpetual cycle of abuse and perceived slight, much of which seems to go on without any trace of irony. Perhaps, though, as with more direct hooliganism, we should look more closely at those that tolerate a culture in which such abuse is acceptable. The double-standards of those that actively behave like this and then claim offence at similar behaviour targeted at them is obvious, but what of those that merely remain passive and fail to condemn those amongst their own support that behave like this?
From the frankly infantile “they started it” (a phrase which should be banned from use by anybody over the age of eight years old) through to attempts to justify such behaviour by trying to claim that there is moral angle to their singing (the old “Liverpool never apologise for Heysel” is a prime example of this particular trope), discussion of such behaviour is normally packed full of straw man arguments and retrospective or half-baked attempts at the justification of behaviour that shouldn’t be considered acceptable, even in the comfortingly anonymous atmosphere of a football crowd. Moreover, when the press have the temerity to report such behaviour – which is, let us not forget, carried out in public and, particularly in the case of the biggest clubs, within the range of the microphones of the television cameras beaming the match around the world – they are frequently criticised by supporters for being selective in their reporting, biased against one club or… whatever. We all know the drill.
Out there in the real world, though, we know that these people are never going to fully disappear, that furthermore that they cannot simply be wished away overnight. Perhaps, if other supporters of clubs – what we might with justification call “the silent majority” – were to be more outright in condemnation of their fellow supporters who act in this way, such behaviour might eventually acquire the same taboo as racism has done, for the most part. Apart from that, it might be a little help if the clubs themselves issued more assertive statements condemning such behaviour and banned those that were established – beyond doubt, of course – to have taken part in such behaviour. This may encourage those that might think twice before getting involved from doing so. It’s not, as some might try to convince us, a matter of being precious in the relative bear-pit of a football crowd. It’s a matter of simple decency, and it’s categorically not too much to ask to request that it stops – on all sides of all divides.
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