Football: the last haven of X-rated freedom

Yes, that Sol Campbell chant is tasteless, obscene and cruel. But ban it? F**k off.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

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That Sol Campbell chant. You know the one I mean. Is it tasteless? Yes. Is it obscene? You bet. Is it ‘cruel and vindictive’? Absolutely. Should it be banned? Of course it fucking shouldn’t.

After Sol Campbell went AWOL from Arsenal with stress-related problems in 2006, fans of Spurs – the club that Campbell deserted for the Gunners – patented one of the most politically incorrect terrace chants in modern football.

Sol, Sol, wherever you may be,
You’re on the verge of lunacy,
And we don’t give a fuck if you’re hanging from a tree,
You’re a Judas cunt with HIV.

Deeply unpleasant yes, but you’ve got to admire its vulgar economy. So few words; so much filth. Joe Kinnear take note: less is more.

Campbell has long been a target for the Spurs booboys but this particular chant has prompted calls for a clampdown after a recent away game at Portsmouth, the defender’s current club. ‘We’re talking about awful abuse, some of this stuff is racist – it’s everything. It’s wrong and has no place in football’, said Portsmouth manager Harry Redknapp. ‘How do you do that in front of your kids? What kind of a nutter must you be?’ Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has also branded the chants ‘racist’.

Hampshire police are investigating the incident following complaints from Portsmouth fans. FA chairman Lord Triesman, himself a lifelong Spurs fan, has called for life bans for the perpetrators. ‘I hope the individuals will be identified and, if appropriate, banned from Tottenham’s ground’, said Triesman. ‘I wouldn’t have them in the ground again.’ That could mean an awful lot of empty seats at White Hart Lane. A police spokesman said that no arrests were made at the game because the ‘sheer number of people involved was just too many for us to take action against individuals’.

Now let’s get one thing straight. There’s no question that the Judas chant is extremely offensive. The HIV reference is probably homophobic. But racist? I don’t think so. The ‘hanging from a tree’ line is not about lynching or monkeys, as some have argued. It’s a biblical reference to Judas Iscariot’s suicide – or at least that’s what most Spurs fans will tell you, though some argue it’s a jibe about Campbell’s fragile mental state when he ‘did a Stephen Fry’ in 2006. Either way it’s not intended as a racial slur. However, given our tendency to view everything through race-tinted spectacles, I can see how it could be misconstrued. We live in easily offended times.

On the internet message boards Spurs fans hold their hands up to making anti-gay taunts but they bristle at the accusations of racism. Campbell has been vilified by Spurs fans ever since he defected to Arsenal in 2001. But, apart from the ambiguous ‘hanging from a tree’ reference, there has never been any explicit racism. In the 2006/7 season, how many arrests do you think were made at White Hart Lane for racist chanting? That’s right, none. Zero. Zilch. Nada. Sol is black and he gets booed. But he isn’t booed because he’s black. It’s because he’s seen as a Judas.

Racist or not, the taunts directed at Campbell were intended to offend. Last year, Campbell complained that the abuse had got ‘out of hand’, saying: ‘We can all take the booing or light banter, but when it gets to the realms of verbal abuse it’s a bridge too far.’ But if you’re going to start arresting fans for verbal abuse, where do we draw the line?

Some chants, like the Munich air crash songs or ‘Spurs are on their way to Auschwitz’, are in extremely poor taste. Lewd songs about footballers’ sex lives are ten-a-penny: remember the ubiquitous ‘Posh Spice takes it up the arse’ chant directed at David Beckham? Recently, Everton fans taunted Steven Gerrard with a chant that questioned the paternity of his child. Regional stereotypes abound: Welsh fans are ‘sheep shaggers’, Scousers are ‘hubcap thieves’, Gillingham fans are ‘pikeys’ and so on. And if you’ve never heard anti-gay slurs at football then you need your hearing tested. I could go on. The point is that abusive chants are part and parcel of terrace culture.

Why is it important to defend the right of fans to hurl abuse? Well first and foremost, it’s a free speech issue. Last time I checked, Britain was a democracy and, in a democracy, we’re supposed to have stuff like, er, civil liberties. Freedom of expression ought to mean that we have the right to say – or chant – what we want, however obscene or offensive. There should be no qualifications. No strings attached. The only boundary should be where words become deeds, where abuse becomes assault. But speech itself, however hurtful, should never be curbed.

‘If this happened on the streets, you’d be arrested’, Sol Campbell argues. But there is a difference between verbal abuse at football and verbal abuse in the streets, at work, on a train, or in a restaurant. Football is exceptional. In a football stadium, conventional social etiquette is temporarily suspended. Instead, it’s acceptable for adults to sing, shout, swear and generally behave like big kids for 90 minutes. It’s a bit like a stag party (without the fancy dress) or a package holiday: a social arena in which people are allowed to go a bit mental and let off steam.

As the broadcaster Nicky Campbell put it, football provides ‘a rare opportunity for thousands of people to escape the straitjacket and be their joyously expressive selves’ (1). If football grounds become abuse-free zones, if there’s nowhere left for grown men to behave badly, then our cultural life is damaged.

Football, too, will be irreparably damaged if you excised verbal abuse. It’s already being damaged if you look at the anaesthetised atmosphere at our ‘family friendly’ Premiership grounds. Individual fans are regularly ejected by stewards for swearing, persistent standing or being drunk. But, as yet, there has been little action taken to curb mass chanting. Millwall were handed an FA fine after racist chanting at a Carling Cup game against Liverpool in October 2004 – a decision that was subsequently overturned on appeal. And that’s about the sum of it.

If Spurs or their fans are disciplined it could prove a crucial moment in the battle for the heart and soul of football. Do we want inoffensive ‘light banter’ or do we want irreverent, unruly, X-rated insult-trading? Do we a hymnal of approved chants or do we want unscripted, unregulated vulgarity? Do we want a hushed church congregation or a seething, passionate crowd? I know which I prefer. If you don’t want sanitised football then you have to side with the Spurs fans.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked‘s sports columnist. He is speaking about cricket and football chanting at the Battle of Ideas festival at the Royal College of Art, London on 1&2 November.

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