THE sport may be more middle class than working class these days and the fears that it sold a large chunk of its soul a long time ago may be justified, but as a reflection of society at large football can still provide examples of right and wrong. Last week it reminded all of us of the power we have to bestow joy and misery on others.
This was a week when football flashed a view of the many facets of human nature – the good, the bad and the ugly.
For those with their own prejudices, it is easy to point to the Chelsea fans who repeatedly refused to allow a black man to board their train on the Paris Metro and claim the majority of football fans are equally racist. For those who were already affected by the fall-out, it was equally easy to quickly try to distance themselves.
“I felt ashamed when I found out, but these supporters do not represent the club,” said Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho.
But the sad fact is that whether the club likes it or not, whether it makes every decent fan despair and every black player in the Chelsea dressing room feel betrayed, on that train, at that moment, as they repeatedly pushed a black man on to the platform, those racist idiots did represent Chelsea and in the minds of those who have watched it, they did represent football.
“The dressing room reacted as I did – with disappointment. They condemn the situation and support the gentleman involved. They feel ashamed, but maybe we shouldn’t because these people involved do not belong to Chelsea Football Club,” added Mourinho.
The racists may not speak for the manager or the players, they may be a minority voice in a swell of tolerant and anti-racist supporters, but in every archive in the world their actions will forever be linked with the London club. In the days of YouTube and bloggers, of access-all-areas social media and faceless forums, there is no sweeping the incident under the carpet. The actions are indelibly recorded but the club’s response will be as well.
If those in charge at Stamford Bridge have any decency and any commercial sense, they will follow through on their promise to issue lifelong bans to anyone involved. Three people have already been suspended. Those banishments must be made permanent and more must follow. Because while they don’t belong to the club, their actions will forever be linked with it.
Sitting silently by doesn’t make the issue go away. People have to use their voice and their gumption, they need to reclaim the game and the way it is portrayed. When such sickening incidents as that in Paris occur, football fans need to make it clear that the good still outnumber the bad.
Claiming that the racists, the bigots and abusive morons don’t represent us all is no longer good enough because every time their actions are covered in the news, they do. And the only way to stop that is to be proactive and to weed them out and to keep proving to the world that sport is inclusive and that football hasn’t forgotten its team values.
Which is why, in the midst of that vile racism and subsequent despair, it was lovely to see young Jay Beatty win this month’s SPFL goal of the month. Cynics dismiss the inclusion of the 11-year-old Celtic fan’s half-time penalty in the January list as gimmicky, and it was, but the fact that 97 per cent of all those who then voted, opted to reward the boy, who has Down’s Syndrome and a smile that could melt the hardest heart, proves that the game hasn’t sold every slice of its soul to Lucifer.
Coming so soon after Scottish football cast aside allegiances to support and pay tribute to dying Rangers supporter Jak Trueman at the recent League Cup semi-final, and demonstrated empathy with the likes of Fernando Ricksen and Stiliyan Petrov, it reminds us of the warmth of humanity. And while it would serve some stereotypes to paint all football fans as bigoted, racist and sexist louts who cannot even be trusted to drink a beer without disgracing themselves and the game, the reality is more in keeping with the generosity of spirit shown to Jay, Jak and countless others like them. Those boys may have made the headlines, but they are not the only evidence of kindnesses committed daily within the game.
Every weekend tins are rattled outside grounds and, inside, fundraising feats are highlighted, supported and applauded by stadium announcers and fans. There’s the annual charity Kiltwalks, there are community projects which use football to help the deprived, the homeless, the disabled and those who would otherwise feel alone and depressed.
The sport is used to tackle racism, and to address many aspects of social inclusion. Week in, week out, footballers form unlikely and unpublicised friendships akin to the relationship enjoyed by Georgios Samaras and Jay Beatty, who joined the Celtic players on a lap of honour when they were awarded the league trophy last summer and was gifted a winner’s medal by the then manager, Neil Lennon.
There are the unseen hospital visits, the youth club presentations and school assemblies attended in the hope of inspiring the next generation to work hard and achieve their dreams. Add to that the emotional introductions to dying kids, whose last wish is to meet their heroes. That’s the side of football we should be celebrating, the side of the game we should be fighting for.
There was footage kicking about not too long ago of a 14-year-old lad who had been in and out of hospital ever since he was eight years old and contracted meningitis. The illness had led to a bladder and bowel condition and an unknown future. His biggest joy was football, with the lad’s emotional mum saying it was the one thing that kept him going through the tough times. His favourite team was Chelsea.
In the YouTube footage, he literally leaps for joy when he meets and gets to quiz Mourinho, and the joy, wonder and smiles just keep on coming as the players troop out one by one. It didn’t make the national news and wouldn’t have been headline fodder across Europe, but it was an example of another side of the game – the more palatable side of it – and it was the kind of positive publicity Chelsea’s commercial team and decent fans would jump at right now.
It proves there is a good side to our game and that’s the side we all have to be on. Otherwise, whether we like it or not, we are always going to be considered guilty by association.
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