It’s a football match, not a finishing school

Instead of kowtowing to politicians, footballers should tell the language police where to stick their swear boxes.

James Howell

Topics Politics

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UK culture secretary Jeremy Hunt has joined a whole host of players, commentators and officials in the debate over bad language in football.

Hunt has argued that footballers have a duty to address the language they use as it influences ‘thousands and thousands of young people’. He has also called on governing bodies, clubs and referees to try to enforce a new, more polite on-pitch idiom. Good luck with that. The daft Hunt has support, however, from the head of the Professional Footballers Association, Clarke Carlisle. Carlisle has said he believes a clampdown by clubs and a firmer stance by referees is necessary for the integrity of the game.

But here’s the thing: the idea that footballers should always treat each other with civility is ludicrous. It could only be promoted by people with no understanding of the nature of the game – people like the soft Hunt, for instance. This is not to say there is no place for sportsmanship in football. In the 2000/2001 season, during a match between Everton and West Ham, Paolo Di Canio had a perfect opportunity to put West Ham into the lead. Yet, spotting Everton’s admittedly useless goalkeeper Paul Gerrard lying prone by the side of the pitch, Di Canio promptly caught the ball instead of scoring, an act for which he was rightly praised.

But sportsmanship is different to civility. During 90 hectic minutes, the idea that the referee should punish heat-of-the-moment expressions of passion and commitment for a club is ridiculous. If a game is halted every time one player has a disagreement with another, then the game would undoubtedly suffer. Just try to imagine how the clampdown on aggressive language would play out during a hotly disputed derby. It is almost impossible to imagine ‘full-blooded’ Sunderland midfielder Lee Cattermole taking issue with, say, Newcastle’s Fabricio Coloccini over an incident on the pitch, without delving into some very colourful language. And fans actually want to see confrontation. Without these visible shows of passion – and yes, that includes foul and abusive language – footballers can be easily mistaken for not caring. With modern players feeling ever more distant from the fans, it is important that at least during the game the players share the passion in the stands around them.

Although many will argue there are other ways to do show passion than an ‘eff you’ here, there and everywhere, is foul language really such a big deal? Hunt, Carlisle and Co’s argument against on-pitch bad language usually involves talking about how it will all leak into the innocent ears of the youngsters in the stands or watching at home. Really? For a start, in football grounds, the voices of the players can rarely be heard. Second, a child is a lot more likely to hear far worse in stands. And third, so what? In my younger years I gained a deep and well-rounded literary education on the terraces. Some of the creative uses that swearing is put to in the stands are worthy of James Joyce.

Some have argued that the current obsession with footballing etiquette is an extension of the authoritarian and censorious policing of the stands. This argument certainly holds some truth. You only have to look at the Scottish Football Association’s attempt to prohibit so-called sectarian chanting during Old Firm games to see the extent to which Britain’s football authorities are bent on determining what is and what is not appropriate fan behaviour. That such censoriousness extends to the language of the players on the pitch should not be a surprise.

Yet swearing is a common and integral part of football. What Hunt fails to realise is that football would not be the same without swearing. Abusive, offensive and often funny chants are an important part of the Saturday-afternoon experience, with or without those young, easily influenced minds present. It is this atmosphere that separates football from other sports. Compare the crazed fanaticism in football stands, and the aggressive passion of the players, to the faux-gentlemanly nature of sports such as rugby. I know which I prefer.

While Carlisle might want to tie the tongues of professional footballers, fans won’t have it. I’m sure if Carlisle wasn’t too busy trying to please those at the FA, he might agree that football wouldn’t be the same without the unadulterated passion. That’s why swearing should not be clamped down on. Footballers might not be as eloquent as those telling them not to swear, but that doesn’t matter: they should still tell their supposed betters where to go. Footballers don’t have a duty to please those who might quiver at a few four-letter words, but they do have a duty to those who travel hundreds of miles to a Tuesday-night away fixture.

James Howell is a third-year student at Goldsmiths, University of London and a former spiked intern.

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Topics Politics


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