Offside, 2 December

Football's spitting wars.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

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Move over Lee Bowyer. Step aside Robbie Savage. There’s a new candidate for the title of Britain’s Most Hated Footballer: El Hadji Diouf, serial spitter, theatrical tumbler and occasional goalscorer for Bolton Wanderers and Senegal.

On Saturday El Hadji was caught on camera spitting straight in the face of Portsmouth’s Arjan De Zeeuw. It wasn’t pleasant to watch, especially as De Zeeuw appeared to cop a mouthful of phlegm, nor was it Diouf’s first offence. In March 2003 he was fined £5000 at Glasgow Sheriff Court for aiming a volley of saliva at Celtic fans during an UEFA Cup game. He has also been accused of gobbing at West Ham fans and at an 11-year old Middlesborough fan.

Saying sorry in public is now de rigeur so it was little surprise to see Diouf promptly issuing a stage-managed apology. ‘I am a role model to many thousands of fans throughout the world and my behaviour showed a lack of moral responsibility to the public who support me’, said Diouf sounding uncannily like Alex from A Clockwork Orange after aversion therapy.

Actually, the Clockwork Orange analogy is not as far fetched as it sounds. Sam Allardyce is reportedly considering hiring a therapist to cure Diouf’s expectoration habit. ‘I’m pleased the way the club are going to have words and try to have professional counselling to understand why he does that when he’s upset’, said players union chief Gordon Taylor. Er, what exactly is there to understand? Diouf goes down in the Portsmouth penalty box. No penalty. De Zeeuw accuses Diouf of play-acting. Diouf gobs in De Zeeuw’s face. End of story. You don’t need Sigmund Freud to explain that. Diouf will probably now endure the same diagnosis by media as Gazza whose clownish antics were pathologised as symptoms of Tourette’s Syndrome, Attention Deficit Disorder and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

The reaction to Diouf’s latest spitting offence once again illustrates the ‘hard but fair’ moral code that exists in British football. ‘The lowest thing you can do as a professional footballer’, said Match of the Day pundit Alan Shearer (a man who has been accused of elbowing opponents in the face, once breaking a Maltese defender’s nose in the process). ‘To be on the receiving end of that is probably the worst thing that can happen to you’, said Diouf’s teammate Gary Speed (if we follow this logic Harold Shipman should only have been given a three-match ban as well).

Whenever a high-profile player is caught spitting you will invariably find soccer’s hard men leading the chorus of condemnation. When Patrick Vieira spat in Neil ‘Razor’ Ruddock’s face, the notorious footballer-thug could barely find words to express his rage. ‘What he did was scum. He’s scum.… It’s the worst of all things. The lowest of the low’, said Ruddock (a man who once broke both of Andy Cole’s legs). ‘Spitting is a coward’s way of getting your own back from people who aren’t so strong in the tackle’, said legendary Chelsea enforcer Ron ‘Chopper’ Harris after a spate of spitting incidents in 2003. ‘It’s the sort of thing which makes you feel like going up and smacking him with a right hand.’

Just what is it about spitting that so offends British sensibilities? Sociologist Peter Marsh thinks it is because spitting is considered effeminate. ‘Spitting is outside the ritual framework within which most conflicts are conducted,’ said Marsh. ‘You have to consider the sociocultural value of spitting, the depth of insult that it conveys – it’s non-manly.’ (1)

Marsh has a point but our antipathy to spitting represents an increasingly isolated bastion of manliness in an increasingly feminised sporting culture. These days it is acceptable for footballers to weep in public, brandish their children at Cup finals, and fess up about their addictions to the press. David Beckham in particular has been hailed as a metrosexual icon for poncing around in sarongs, braiding his hair, and wearing his wife’s underwear. ‘By defying expectations in areas such as what clothes men are allowed to wear, he has helped create a complex new concept of masculinity’, praised one academic treatise on Beckham.

But not even Beckham has dared to violate ‘the last taboo’, as one national newspaper described spitting (though quite where that leaves incest and bestiality is anyone’s guess). I think the cultural studies theorists have missed a trick here. Maybe it’s not Beckham but El Hadji Diouf who is the real cultural pioneer, redefining masculine codes of conduct with a shower of saliva. Gobbing in someone’s face: radical critique of traditional masculinity or just plain disgusting? Discuss.

(1) In bad taste: Why spitting is the absolute insult, Times (London), 30 November 2004

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Topics Politics


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