Football’s persistent darkness reflects the human condition

Much like the persistence of racism, to be still talking about a problem that existed in the days when Graeme Souness had a moustache and a perm feels like a depressing indictment of humanity’s inability to change for the better, writes Tommy Martin.

Football’s persistent darkness reflects the human condition

There is a flashback scene in the new series of The Handmaid’s Tale where Emily, a young, lesbian academic, and her boss, a middle-aged, gay professor, talk about the encroaching climate of bigotry that eventually leads to the establishment of Gilead, the ultra-religious dystopia in which the show is set.

When Emily is outed, her professor takes her off teaching duties in an attempt to placate the university’s disapproving board of management. Emily objects, refusing to be cowed by the suddenly intolerant atmosphere.

The professor, played by the actor John Carroll Lynch, sighs.

“I thought mine was the last generation who had to deal with this bullshit. I thought all of you were so spoiled.”

“Not any more,” Emily replies.

As the boos of the Burnley fans were directed at Brighton’s Gaetan Bong at Turf Moor on Saturday, Chris Hughton surely wished his generation of black footballers were the last who had to deal with this bullshit.

Earlier this season Bong accused West Brom’s Jay Rodriguez, a former Burnley player and native of the town, of racially abusing him during a match. The FA found the charge not proven but said Bong’s complaint had been made in “absolute good faith”.

When Brighton travelled to Burnley on Saturday the local fans let Bong know what they thought of his complaint.

Hughton’s reaction in his post-match interview spoke of someone who had hoped the suffering of his youth was something the current breed would never have to endure.

“I would have to say that I thought the reaction of the Burnley supporters towards Gaetan every time he got the ball was shameful, I really do,” Hughton said afterwards, the normally measured Seagulls manager visibly upset.

Where Bong was the victim of the traditional mob mentality, Cyrus Christie has been submerged by social media’s anonymous cesspool.

Last week the full-back, who received online racial abuse in the aftermath of Ireland’s play-off defeat to Denmark last November, shared a series of tweets which abused him in the most appallingly racist manner.

One tweet threatened Christie and his family with an image of black people being lynched during the worst epoch of the Ku Klux Klan.

“Nothing changes…nothing gets done,” was Christie’s accompanying message, while in another tweet he challenged the platform hosting this bile: “So @Twitter you want to find this guy’s identity or not?”

The abuse suffered by Bong and Christie feels incongruous because we like to believe we live in more enlightened times. The Handmaid’s Tale derives a lot of its impact through the juxtaposition of Gilead’s brutal repression with surroundings synonymous with everyday American life. For example, in one unforgettable image from this series a vast scaffolding is installed on the overgrown playing field of the Boston Red Sox’s Fenway Park, for the purpose of a mass hanging of sinners.

Similarly, to hear chants widely interpreted as having racist intent at a Premier League ground jars with the globalised, family-friendly, slickly-marketed product which top-level English football likes to think of itself as.

And, as if to complete the disorientating throwback to the game’s darkest days, the subject of football hooliganism returns to the agenda.

We ran a piece on the 1984 European Cup final, a match where the aftermath was marred by attacks by Roma fans on visiting Liverpool supporters, in the build-up to our live TV3 broadcast of last week’s Champions League semi-final first leg between the sides, unaware that history was repeating itself outside Anfield at that very moment, the consequences of which left 53-year-old Meath man Sean Cox in a coma.

Much like the persistence of racism, to be still talking about a problem that existed in the days when Graeme Souness had a moustache and a perm feels like a depressing indictment of humanity’s inability to change for the better.

The idea we would live in a utopian society where morons didn’t abuse black people and crazy Italian hooligans wouldn’t go around stabbing innocent bystanders is part of the belief that the rise of liberal values would eventually eliminate intolerance and hatred. The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice, and all that.

In this worldview modern football, with its Respect banners and vast multi-cultural landscape, can only be an agent for tolerance and meritocracy, smoothing out society’s creases with every pre-season Asian tour and multi-lingual Twitter post.

Alas even football’s globalist dream is not immune to the malevolent realities now loose in the modern world. Is it possible to separate the abuse of Gaetan Bong and Cyrus Christie from the climate in Britain which led to Brexit and which has the current Windrush scandal playing out to the shame of the Tory government?

The tendency of those feeling marginalised by economic inequality to blame ‘the other’ and have that hostility whipped up and harnessed by malign political forces is familiar to anyone who has glanced through a history book.

And if they’ve watched the news lately, when a white supremacist-sympathiser sits in the White House and the UK government’s “hostile environment” immigration policy makes criminals of the elderly Windrush generation, they won’t be too surprised at the treatment of Bong and Christie.

If hooliganism has gone from an English disease to an Italian problem, it too only reflects the broader human condition. Academics date the existence of violence around football back to the game’s 11th-century incarnation in the English countryside — no wonder the hoolies are still around.

The enduring threat of hooliganism in Italy and other countries is a reminder that young men will always seek a sense of belonging in the form of gangs, with the group identification of football colours and the exhilaration of violent battle only deepening the attachment.

The role of organised crime and the power of the Ultras to influence clubs at the highest level has made the Italian authorities unwilling, or unable, to tackle the hooligans as has been done in England — allowing them, in football’s interconnected, networked age, to visit the results of their depravity upon a small community in Co Meath.

Indeed, it’s the same intoxicating collective mentality that gives the hooligans their power which made football fans traditionally susceptible to racism, the ‘us versus them’ dynamic gaining extra resonance when ‘them’ was visibly different. He’s one of our own, as the song goes.

The success of The Handmaid’s Tale can partly be explained by the fact its warning about the complacency of the modern liberal order in the face of the erosion of its values seems to tally with the times.

Complacency is something to which Chris Hughton is unlikely to fall victim.

“If I look at the period when I played, the difference between then and now is incredible and you will have black players, young players, who have gone through nowhere near what we would have gone through,” Hughton said this week.

“But it’s always going to rear its ugly head and what we have to be able to do is, when there are incidences, is stamp down and stamp down very hard.”

As dark clouds drift across football’s sky, it would be nice to think that another generation wouldn’t have to deal with any of this bullshit.

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