Column: A sport with foul fans cannot be beautiful

Football likes to call itself ”the beautiful game,” but that
will not and cannot be true as long as some of its fans remain so
disgusting.

Singing ”Adolf Hitler, he’s coming for you,” mimicking the
hiss of Jews being gassed in the Holocaust, making ”hou, hou,
hou” monkey sounds and acting like gorillas when black players
have the ball, brutalizing other fans with fists, knives and iron
bars. Each season, the list of vile behavior at and around football
grows only longer.

Each time, football tells us the vast majority of its fans are
decent folk and that hooligans are a small – even dwindling –
minority, which all seems true.

Each time, club owners, managers and administrators say such
outrages are intolerable, which is what was said after anti-Semitic
abuse at Tottenham-West Ham last Sunday. Investigations are
launched. ”NO RACISM” jerseys are printed off for players to
wear, as they were Tuesday by Lazio’s team in Rome after hooligan
violence and anti-Semitism there. Fines are handed down to clubs
and countries – a token, cosmetic gesture that does nothing to hurt
the perpetrators.

And each time, the business of football marches on. Around the
world, the sport has erected glittering cathedrals of worship to
itself, modern stadiums with hot food, clean toilets and stewards
in fluorescent jackets to direct fans to seats, make them feel safe
and keep the peace. Together, all this and rivers of television and
sponsorship money have moved football upmarket from its
working-class roots. It wouldn’t be fair to those who live off
football financially and emotionally if matches, clubs, or
competitions were suspended for each hooligan incident, although it
might leave hooligans short of alternatives to occupy their tiny
minds. So the show always goes on.

But football will never be a respectable sport as long as it
continues to provide a refuge – even if it’s an unwilling refuge –
for the scum at its fringes. There is no hooliganism at cricket
matches. English rugby fans don’t make monkey sounds at the All
Blacks. At the Olympic Games, spectators don’t chant ”Juden,” as
some fans reportedly did when Lazio played Udinese in the Italian
league Tuesday.

In Formula One, no one yells that fans are ”on their way to
Auschwitz,” which is what supporters of London club Tottenham have
complained of hearing again this season from opposing fans when
traveling to games. Hooliganism is a disease of societies but one
that brings out puss-filled boils in just one major sport –
football.

I’ve heard all the excuses about why that is and have grown
tired of them, because they are no excuse for not doing more, much
more, to stamp out all of this repeated ugliness.

One excuse is that football is a victim not the cause of
hooliganism, that football’s tribal culture pitting teams and their
fans against each other unfortunately attracts vile people who are
out there in society anyway. But that culture can make people vile,
too. Not all those who chant about the Munich air crash that
decimated Manchester United’s team in 1958 or who sing about the
Hillsborough stadium crush that killed 96 Liverpool fans in 1989
can be violent hooligans, but overheated football rivalry does turn
all of them into idiots.

Another oft-heard excuse is that hooliganism infects football in
particular because of its working-class origins, once played and
watched largely by factory workers. That is grossly offensive,
because of its nasty suggestion that people are thuggish and badly
brought up because they’re blue collar. One common trait of
hooligans and those who join anti-Semitic or racist chants has
nothing to do with class but everything to do with cowardice –
these people are vile in public when they have strength in numbers
and are lost in the relative anonymity of a large football
crowd.

Often there is no logical explanation. One of West Ham’s
millionaire owners, David Gold, is Jewish. His wealth and that of
co-owner David Sullivan has helped bankroll the east London club.
Yet a small but still significant pocket of West Ham fans, several
hundred according to London Telegraph journalist Jonathan Liew,
chanted about Adolf Hitler. That, supposedly, was to rile
Tottenham’s Jewish fans. But West Ham’s chairman is also Jewish and
Hitler’s bombers killed thousands of people in London’s East End in
World War II. It all makes no sense.

Gold said he didn’t hear the chanting from where he was, in the
VIP box at Tottenham’s White Hart Lane stadium.

”If I had then I’m sure I would have been mortified,” he
said.

As a kid growing up in the East End in the 1930s and `40s, Gold
says he was taunted and beaten up because of his Jewish background.
His great-grandfather hung himself in the men’s toilets of his
synagogue, driven to suicide, Gold says in his biography, by
anti-Semitism he faced in England, having moved there to escape
persecution in Poland.

Personal history which makes it appear particularly horrific
that Gold now has to deal with anti-Semitism at his own club. West
Ham maintains that only a handful of fans were involved. Gold wrote
in the Daily Mail that he and Sullivan are leading their
investigation. The club is working with the Football Association
and Tottenham to try to identify offenders and Gold said West Ham
will ban them from its stadium. One fan already has been.

But there will be more incidents in future – more chanting, more
games where black players hear monkey sounds and are tossed
bananas, more attacks like the one last week on Tottenham fans by
masked thugs in Rome who wielded knives, metal bars and stones and
reportedly shouted ”Jew.”

Because that is football.

Not all of football.

Just an ugly fringe.

But always enough to prevent it from the being the beautiful
game it claims to be.

John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The
Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow
him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester