Let’s stop the sanitising of terrace culture

By criminalising ‘indecent chanting’, the authorities threaten to turn all football fans into jester-hatted consumers.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

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Hands up any fan who can honestly say, hand on heart, that they have never sung an indecent song at a football match? Not many I’d imagine.

We’ve all done it, haven’t we? Indecent chanting is one of the great joys of going to the football. A football stadium is one of the few places where conventional social etiquette is temporarily relaxed; where, for 90 minutes on a Saturday afternoon, you can throw off the straightjacket of nine-to-five conformity and behave like you’re on a stag weekend in Tallinn (albeit without the lapdancers).

Football academics have a name for this; football, they say, is a ‘liminal zone’ – a twilight existence where normal behavioural rules are altered. As Gary Armstrong and Richard Giulianotti explain in their book, Entering the Field: New Perspectives on World Football: ‘The chance to suggest to very fit, muscular men, that their sexuality is questionable, or that they are a disgrace to their profession, is easily expressed without the fear of the receiver reciprocating and demanding redress for the insult.’ (1) In other words, you can go a bit mental at football: get drunk, shout, swear and chant all kinds of X-rated filth. Or at least you used to be able to. In recent years we’ve seen football’s exceptional status eroded as clubs have sought to make stadiums family friendly. Last week’s court case, which saw two Spurs fans banned for indecent chanting, marked another milestone in the relentless drive to sanitise football.

‘Come on gay boy; that’s my gay boy.’ That’s what the two supporters shouted at Sol Campbell when Portsmouth played Spurs at Fratton Park on 28 September 2008. The Portsmouth defender has been subjected to abusive chants by Spurs fans ever since he joined arch-rivals Arsenal in 2001 after repeatedly professing his devotion to Tottenham. Many of the chants are deeply unpleasant, such as the notorious ‘Judas chant’ which contains the line: ‘We don’t give a fuck if you’re hanging from a tree; you’re a Judas cunt with HIV.’

The taunting of Campbell isn’t new, but the authorities have only now decided to get tough. Earlier this year, 11 supporters were fined and banned for abusive chanting at the Portsmouth game. Indecent chanting was explicitly prohibited in the 1991 Football (Offences) Act, but although stewards frequently eject individual fans from stadiums for using foul language, this is the first case of indecent chanting to be taken to the courts. According to the prosecutor Sophie Stevens: ‘The police and members of the public considered there was significant abuse from the travelling Tottenham supporters, abuse above what is, perhaps wrongly, accepted at a football match.’

Explaining the magistrates’ decision, chair of the panel Georgette Holbrook said: ‘We find that the words used were in extremely bad taste, they were inappropriate, shocking and disgusting, and as such they were indecent.’ To be honest, as football chants go, I can think of far worse. You’ll find plenty of vulgar ditties that would make a nun blush at a football match. But for how much longer? Whether or not the Campbell chants cross an imaginary decency threshold is immaterial. What matters is that a precedent has been set. Fans have been prosecuted. The law which prohibits indecent chanting, which many had hitherto considered unenforceable, has been enforced.

Yes, many of the chants directed at Campbell were vicious and anti-gay – though as I’ve argued before, the charges of racism are wide of the mark (2). But while the gay jibes were extremely offensive, this doesn’t justify outlawing them. Why? Firstly, because free speech is vital in a democratic society and we should defend it. And I don’t mean defend free speech just when mad mullahs want to burn books, but defend it when bigots say things that we find offensive. Civil rights should be indivisible. No qualifications, no exceptions. Judas cunt with HIV. Come on gay boy. We might not like these sentiments but we shouldn’t let the police or the courts decide what we can and can’t chant.

Secondly, we need to protect football from the forces of sanitisation. According to a recent report in The Times, a Football Association working party wants to introduce points deductions for clubs whose fans take part in ‘racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic or Islamophobic abuse’. The aim, apparently, is to ‘eradicate the kind of abuse that falls below the threshold of criminal prosecution, but could merit civil disciplinary measures’ (1).

Football is at a crossroads. Either we allow the regimentation of fan conduct to reach its logical conclusion: fans reduced to the role of passive jester-hat-wearing consumers who only sing anodyne songs from an FA-approved songbook. Or else we take a stand and defend one of the few social arenas left where grown-ups can let off steam and behave badly. And that means defending the right of Spurs fans to vilify Sol Campbell. If we can’t sing and shout what we want at football without fear of arrest, then terrace culture as we know it is doomed.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s football columnist.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Sport

(1) Entering the Field: New Perspectives in World Football, Armstrong G Giulianotti, Berg Publishers, 1997

(2) Football: The last haven of x-rated freedom, Duleep Allirajah, 10 October 2008

(3) Football racism could cost clubs points or relegation, The Times (London), 5 May 2009

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Topics Politics


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