Thursday, 12 November 2009

Getting Away with Murder

Hate figures are easy to come by in modern football. Every fan has a team they genuinely hate – and it’s not necessarily their clubs’ rivals. For example, I imagine there’s relatively few Chelsea fans who actually hate Fulham, such is the longstanding and still significant gulf between the clubs’ fortunes on the pitch. The same, of course, cannot be said of Manchester United or Liverpool fans, or, as we’ve already seen this year, West Ham and Millwall fans, for example. Equally, Real Madrid and Barcelona fans hate each other’s teams so much that in a recent poll where Barca fans were asked which they would prefer, Barcelona winning or Real Madrid losing, the prospect of a defeat for Los Merengues won by a clear majority.

The fact that it is the teams they hate is significant. It’s perfectly possible, all over the world, to see groups of friends, all of whom support different clubs, bantering quite happily (and notably not kicking the shit out of each other) while still expressing (and probably feeling) heartfelt animosity towards the actual clubs their friends support. I have certainly been part of such groups in the past and while it’s handy for exercising one’s Sky Sports round table discussion show pretensions, there’s no pretence towards balance; some teams we just hate.

And it’s absolutely not just teams that get picked on. Everyone has certain players they can’t stand, no matter what club they play for or what country they represent. Some people can fly into a spluttering rage at the sight of rival managers, former players, team owners (poor Mike Ashley, eh?) or even just the sight of a replica shirt or badge. Maybe it’s a controversial goal someone scored once, or some long-held grudge against a nation that knocked yours out of the World Cup twenty years ago. There are people who hate teams because of some perceived injustice that took place long before they were even born – grievances passed down from generation to generation like a festering, anxious and really rather silly family heirloom.

It is all silly – and totally irrational. I have my own personal hate figures in the game, of course, like everyone. The ones that really interest me, however, are those universal hate figures, the ones that everyone, whether they be on the TV, radio or down the pub, just can’t get on with, and can’t fathom why they’re allowed to exist at all – and often with good reason.

They come at all levels of the game. The standard choice, as far as players go, would be someone like Joey Barton. The very mention of his name in almost any football-literate company will elicit the same sort of responses – “thug”, “disgrace”, “ungrateful”, “should be banned for life”, et cetera. I say almost, because presumably he has his fans somewhere. All the bosses that have signed him despite knowing his track record, his appalling discipline, his unforgivable off-the-pitch behaviour. The team mates that have stuck by him and defended his character. And presumably his family must have a bit of a soft spot for him, too.

But there can’t be many. If anyone reading this doesn’t know Barton’s record, this is the player who, to name a few “incidents”: stubbed a cigar out in the eye of a Man City youth team player in a nightclub causing permanent scarring, assaulted a 15-year-old Everton fan during a tour of Thailand in 2005, beat up team mate Ousmane Dabo at City’s training ground, leaving him with a suspected detached retina, and, most famously, spent 77 days in prison in 2008 for assaulting a man at a McDonald’s restaurant in Liverpool city centre. The FA make a great deal of fuss about the need for footballers to be role models to young people – and yet he’s still permitted, clubs allowing, to play football at the highest level, enjoying the attendant luxurious lifestyle.

Other universal hate figures are found higher up. The biggest – because he’s right at the top, I suppose – is Joseph “Sepp” Blatter, President of FIFA. There is literally no one more important than him in the world of football, and yet whenever his name is mentioned in the press, by a pundit or by a fan, it is usually in the most derisory terms. How has Blatter, despite having held the title of President for 11 years, failed so spectacularly to endear himself to the common football fan?

There are a number of reasons. There’s the constant rumours of financial irregularities – including rights payments to FIFA mysteriously vanishing and ending up in the personal accounts of FIFA delegates, and the suspicious halting of an investigation into the loss of $100m by FIFA’s marketing partner in 2002; there’s his comments in 2008 declaring Cristiano Ronaldo to be a “slave” when Manchester United refused to sell him to Real Madrid (but mainly it was because Sepp just really, really hates the dominance of the Premier League); and, of course, his charming suggestion that to make women’s football more successful the players should “wear tighter shorts”.

Blatter is a magnet for ridicule – he is a symbol of everything that is just a little seedy and corrupt about the very top of modern football. And yet, despite damning books and articles by dedicated investigative journalists like Andrew Jennings, he remains FIFA President – and is unlikely to be unseated any time soon. With a global audience of fans who love declaring their hatred for teams, fans, referees, managers and administrators, why haven’t people like Blatter and his particularly odious Vice President Jack Warner (but more about him another time), Joey Barton and other petulant, undeserving players, felt a bit more of the wrath?

My theory is that in a sport, and in a culture, that is so used to polarised opinions, controversial on- and off-pitch events, and is quite comfortable with casual, irrational “hate”, that sometimes the truly deserving hate figures are allowed to go about their business – bringing the game into disrepute, often, engaging in morally repugnant criminal activity. Perhaps we need to focus less on irrational, decades-old grudges and throw a bit more hate the way of those who have genuinely done something to deserve it.

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