“Football is a strong weapon to defend the principles of humanity.”
So said Manchester City manager Pep Guardiolia at a press conference last week, ahead of the latest round of Premier League fixtures dedicated to the ‘Kick It Out’ anti-racism campaign. His words rang like a footballing Obi-Wan Kenobi, or some kind of Greek God or football priest superhero, as if football is a piercing arrow of unshakeable virtue.
England footballers were subjected to racist abuse in Montenegro last week and UEFA duly issued punishments, so the ‘Kick It Out’ round of games came at a pertinent time. Guardiola was specifically backing the idea of withdrawing players from the pitch if they were subjected to racist abuse. But his words seem a little scripted, rose-tinted and idealistic. Almost laughably so. Arguably nauseatingly so.
Football is certainly a strong weapon, a global game. But, from a perspective of regularly sitting pitchside between fans and players, it seems primarily to unite people around tribal hatred rather than anything more noble. Within earshot of the front few rows at least, football creates abusive snarling monsters of fans. They do not appear obviously charged to defend the principles of humanity.
Of course not all fans are like this. Such behaviour can divide fans as much as unite them. It can embarrass and shame by association. (I really wish you didn’t support my team, you idiot). And in a way all football supporters should be respected, as every football club, player and manager exhaustively does on a regular basis. As they are almost contractually obliged to because fans effectively pay wages and keep clubs profitable.
The devotion with which some people follow their team the length and breadth of the country is impressive. Although a certain over-investment unhealthily exaggerates feelings for good and ill.
I love football but feel deeply uneasy about taking my child to a top-flight match. Perhaps I’m an over-sensitive soppy liberal, but football grounds are not child-friendly. They are toxic and fuelled with hate largely based on basic binary differences. There is positivity in the fleeting euphoric swell of a goal celebration, mutually respectful clapping at the start and finish, and team encouragement throughout, but much of the atmosphere is built on hostility.
Local rivalries mean it is compulsory to hate your nearest neighbour and anyone associated with them. For grown-ups that can be sort of amusing on occasion, and some of it is briefly good natured, but it’s not child-friendly. It broadly normalises and accepts forms of behaviour which are unacceptable in virtually any other environment.
In Scotland, last weekend saw the famously heated Glasgow derby between Celtic and Rangers, the traditionally catholic club versus the traditionally protestant club. (I would love to photograph it). Five minutes of online BBC highlights showed Celtic coming out 2-1 winners in a wildly fractious and ill-disciplined atmosphere. Just one man saw red but from those blood-pumping highlights alone it appeared like the number could easily have been three or four.
Shortly after the match there was a mass street brawl in Glasgow city centre, leaving a 47 year-old man in a critical condition.
Life imitating football? Football defending the principles of humanity, or humanity defending the principles of Glaswegian football?
There is a classic male contradiction with violence, which you might say stems from the playground, excitably straining to get a view of the fight, or you might say stems from somewhere more primal.
You know deep down that violence for the sake of violence reprehensible, bad and wrong and disgusting behaviour never to be encouraged. But to safely observe it is quite entertaining, can be ridiculously compelling. Boxing and wrestling and ultimate fighting: they are more niche sports than football, but they are still massively popular – more so than disciplined technical combat sports like judo, kickboxing or fencing.
The intoxicating white heat, the animalistic passion. There, finally, is power. I heard people speak of an unusually unsafe, bristling atmosphere on the streets of Cardiff following big Boxing bouts at the Principality Stadium headlined by Anthony Joshua. Lots of emboldened men out looking for fights.
If a principle of humanity is not to be subjected to racism, I don’t honestly think football is a strong weapon to defend it. It is a weapon, sure, and there is a duty to try, but it is not a strong weapon. Football is too big and complicated and sprawling and stupid. Its mass appeal and grotesque wealth means football has many delusions of grandure. As a weapon to defend the principles of humanity, football is maybe a plastic butter knife.
But if a principle of humanity is for people to form tribes and fight, that is a different matter.