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John Terry joins football’s Hall of Tears

The mocking of ‘Mr Chelsea’ for blubbing like a baby does not show that public emotionalism is on the retreat - it just shows that everyone hates Chelsea.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

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Frank Lampard described John Terry as ‘Mr Chelsea’. I’d go further. To me he is Mr England. He embodies the soul of English football. Not the bulldog spirit, the three lions or any of that nonsense. I mean the missed penalty and the tears. It’s so quintessentially English.

Terry’s very public display of grief has become the iconic image of the 2008 Champions League Final. The Chelsea skipper can now take his place in English football’s Hall of Tears alongside Gazza and Becks, superstars who have flopped on the big stage and blubbed like babies. Nobody remembers the losers, they used to say. Not any more. The trophy went to United, but, in our emotionally incontinent age, it was Terry’s teardrops which took centre stage.

But we didn’t all feel John Terry’s pain. Within hours of the penalty shoot-out, scores of John Terry jokes were whizzing round cyberspace:

Good news: Josef Friztl is to face the death penalty. Bad news: John Terry’s taking it.

The Samaritans are offering counselling to all Chelsea fans. Call 0800 101010 – that’s 08000 won nothing won nothing won nothing.

Have you heard that John Terry is producing his own brand of vodka? Made in England; bottled in Moscow.

Such mockery is not unexpected. While weeping footballers are a symptom of contemporary emotionalism, the desire to poke fun at other people’s misfortune is a remnant of the old thick-skinned terrace culture.

But lack of sympathy for Terry wasn’t just confined to rival football fans. Daily Mirror columnist Tony Parsons contrasted Terry’s blubbing to the dry-eyed stoicism of Frank Lampard. ‘Perhaps when you have just suffered the genuine, life-rending tragedy of losing your mother, it makes it a lot harder to cry about losing a mere football match’, wrote Parsons (1). George Galloway, writing in the Daily Record, was particularly scornful. ‘I had always thought Chelsea’s John Terry was the sort of man you’d want beside you at somewhere like Rorke’s Drift with the Zulus massing in the hills above,’ he wrote. ‘But when he was still sobbing 30 minutes after he missed the penalty kick that made Fergie king again, I realised that he was just a big girl’s blouse.’ (2)

Alyson Rudd, columnist at The Times (London), noted a surprising intolerance amongst her female friends. ‘The morning after the night before, I sat around a table laden with home-made cakes in a sunny garden in the company of a dozen mothers of sons. “I’ll tell you what he is, John Terry is a prize tit”, said one. Heads nodded.’ Rudd couldn’t fathom why women should be so intolerant of public weeping. ‘It was the tears of Italia 90 that opened up football to women such as these’, she wrote. ‘Paul Gascoigne’s spluttering, it is widely believed, changed the face of football.’

So, does the public mockery of John Terry’s tears signify a shift in social attitudes towards public weeping? Have we tired of the quivering lip of emotionalism? Do we yearn for a return to the old-fashioned stiff upper lip?

Sadly, I don’t think so. For a start, there was one very obvious difference between Gazza and JT. Put simply, Gazza’s pain was our pain. He was crying for England. John Terry, on the other hand, was weeping for Chelsea (and himself, of course, which is pretty much the same thing if you’re Mr Chelsea). And these days, Chelsea have usurped Manchester United as the most loathed football team in the country. As Karen Giles, writing in the Glasgow Herald, put it: ‘From the fat cat Roman Abramovich lauding it in his super-size hospitality box to his loathsome minion Peter Kenyon collecting his medal with indecent haste, from Didier Drogba committing the ultimate act of treachery to John Terry wallowing in his own, very public grief, this is a club without soul.’ (4) Even if Terry wasn’t the Chelsea captain, we’d have probably been laughing at his misfortune. Schadenfreude might be a German word, but it’s also a very British footballing tradition. Add in the ABC factor (Anyone But Chelsea) and you can understand why there was so much glee at Terry’s expense.

The iconisation of Gazza’s tears signified an epochal shift in social attitudes to both football and public weeping. However, I think it’s too simplistic to conclude that the weeping Geordie was responsible for football’s new legion of female converts. Gazza simply blubbed in the right place at the right time. Even if he hadn’t cried, football would have undoubtedly broadened its appeal beyond its traditional male, working-class fanbase. Why? Because the main drivers behind football’s renaissance in the 1990s were located outside of the realm of sport. As the public sphere declined, as people lost faith in politics and religion, so football filled the vacuum.

Football today is still a curious mixture of old and new. Stadiums have become more family friendly (that is, soulless and sanitised) but the old male-dominated football culture hasn’t been entirely supplanted by a more touchy-feely, feminised ‘crying game’. The old and new cultures coexist. So, on the one hand, you have the weeping footballers – now joined by the ubiquitous weeping fans. But you also have the traditional banter, the abusive chants and the cruel mockery of penalty chokers.

While everyone has been having a good old chuckle at John Terry’s misery, we shouldn’t kid ourselves that this represents emotionalism on the retreat. You only have to look at the exponential growth of the minute’s silence in football to see that the new rituals of public grief are flourishing. And despite all the e-mockery, the very fact that Terry’s tears have dominated the media coverage speaks volumes aboutour preoccupation with public emoting. Despite the lampooning of Terry, public weeping still has great social currency. It’s probably not advisable to sob uncontrollably like an ickle baby. Nor should Chelsea blubbers expect much sympathy. But I fear that missed penalties and weeping footballers will continue to haunt English football for some time to come.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked‘s sports columnist.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Sport

(1) Final’s crying shame, Daily Mirror, 26 May 2008

(2) Terry’s a big girl’s blouse, Daily Record, 26 May 2008

(3) John Terry is proof that boys do cry, The Times, 23 May 2008

(4) Will it be et tu, Terry in the Roman Empire? Glasgow Herald, 28 May 2008

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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