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