Arsenal 1 – 1 Liverpool
Emirates Stadium, December 21st, 2008
On the hour mark, this game got stained with hate. It actually took me surprise, how beastly football fans can be. I have never heard the word ‘cunt’ said so many times in quick succession (about a hundred times in a minute, to be precise), with so much venom behind each hard ‘c’ and each hard ‘t’.
It was because of Emmanuel Adebayor’s sending off that hatred became the hallmark emotion of this contest in north London. On that incident, the crowd morphed from your garden variety, well-heeled London football fans – they were even funny, the highlight of their pompous London middle-class humour being the chant ‘feed the Scousers/Do they know it’s Christmas time?’ – into something else altogether more disheartening.
What they turned into was nothing short of savage. In the flash of Adebayor’s studs and elbow, the Emirates Stadium became William Golding’s island. The public school boys became spear-wielding, monster-hunting savages, their normally Meridew personas giving way to the face-paint of Jack. The referee Howard Webb was cast as the hapless Piggy, ruthlessly pursued on all fronts as without his figurative glasses, he groped the air in front of him to feel his way through the last half-hour of the match.
Beauty becomes savage when it is set beside savagery. That aphorism rang clear in my mind as I sunk lower and lower into my seat, dismayed at the darker side of football fandom. The beauty of Robin Van Persie’s run, chested control and powerful right-foot finish, and of Robbie Keane’s perfectly struck half-volley in response, were rendered savage by the crowd’s incessant abuse of Webb, Keane (his years at Tottenham never to be forgotten, of course), Alvaro Arbeloa (adjudged to have milked Adebayor’s elbow to his face), and in way, of the match itself.
What is wrong with football fans? Why do we pay 30, 40, 50 quid to go and hate other human beings for their endeavour, season after season? That old argument about the working classes venting a week’s worth of frustration at the footy just doesn’t seem to fly anymore, given that if you can afford a season ticket, you’re probably not that working class. Likewise, the idea that because we are paying customers, we expect a satisfactory (read: three points for our mob, humiliation for theirs) service to be provided by players and officials alike gets shaky when you realise that we’re the mugs who’ve been paying for them to cock things up weekly for decades and yet we still pay, so we can’t get angry now, can we?
So what is it? Why is football fandom always teetering precariously on the precipice of savagery? The irony that the sport known as the ‘beautiful game’ enjoys the most barbarous of fan bases is delicious, but maybe not so complicated to figure out.
Football is primeval. If a meteor hurtled into earth this minute and the grand evolutionary act were to play out all over again, my money is on footy being the first game that would be played. It requires a vaguely spherical object and your foot. It has no apparatus, no complicated rules, no class bias, no judging panel, no odd scoring system.
Football’s simplicity is the source of its beauty. But it is also the source of its savagery. If you kick the vaguely spherical object between two other objects you get a ‘1’. If you miss, you don’t. And back in the day, if your Neanderthal friend was watching, he probably thought ‘how the fuck did he miss that? Even I could’ve scored that!’ Then he may have thrown a rock at you. Not much has changed it seems. Today, if a player misses a good chance, the Homo sapiens watching are likely to think ‘how the fuck did he miss that? Even I could’ve scored that!’ Then they throw abuse at him.
And boom, we’re back in Neanderthal man mode. We’re back to being savages. We’re wielding spears and hunting, but now we’re hunting refs and players. We have never forgotten, through our crazy evolutionary journey, that the simplicity of the game is not beyond any of us. We can all kick the bloody thing. And that’s why we still think and act the same way.
So maybe there’s nothing ‘wrong’ with football fans at all. Maybe all we’re doing is just being human: flitting between beauty and savagery, between applause and abuse and always reminding the illustrious players of the beautiful game that we could fuckin’ come down there and kick the round thing into the goal all by ourselves, you wankers. Ah, the beauty of it.