Gay footballers: fan attitudes limit progress

Congratulations to Thomas Hitzlsperger, the former German international footballer who came out as gay yesterday. I’m happy that he feels comfortable enough to go public about his sexuality, can act as a role model for those who want to be professional athletes, and has received widespread positive responses to his announcement.

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Writing Idea: Pre-Season as a Professional Footballer

Taking inspiration from Stefan Fatsis’s A Few Seconds of Panic and HBO’s Hard Knocks, I’d love to do a similar thing with a Premier League football team. Given my personal preference, I’d want it to be Chelsea.

In essence, the idea would be to join them on their pre-season tours as a squad member (again, my personal preference would be to play goalkeeper, as its the only position I can play), going through all the training, preparation etc as if I were a new signing – though playing in tour matches might be a stretch.

Keeping a diary of what happens on a daily basis behind the scenes, as well as how it feels to experience the rigours of pre-season, would form the basis of the piece (or book) that would be written afterwards, though of course interviews and opinions from players, coaches and management would be needed to make the experience properly worthwhile.

Anyway, that’s the basic idea. Any thoughts?

Sometimes being a football fan is hard

Guardian interview with Robbie Rogers

In the same week that the Guardian ran the linked interview with Robbie Rogers, who retired from professional football because of his sexuality, Sunderland have appointed Paolo Di Canio as their manager.

For those who don’t know, Di Canio is a former West Ham, Charlton and Lazio player, and has previously managed Swindon. He is also a Mussolini supporter and self-confessed fascist. David Milliband, the outgoing MP for South Shields has resigned from the Sunderland board because of Di Canio’s political views.

It is hard to enjoy a sport where being openly homosexual is career ending, while being openly fascist is perfectly acceptable. And how good are The FA, UEFA and FIFA really getting at fighting discrimination when fascists are able to be high profile managers but being gay means you won’t be able to play?
This sport is broken. Can we please start trying to fix it now?

Euro 2012 – UEFA Fail to Tackle Racism, Again

With Euro 2012 officially in the books, and the Spanish team showing that they are still the best national team around (and one of the best ever), the question of the best team and best player – Andres Iniesta – has been answered. One question that hasn’t, though, is when will UEFA get serious with tackling racist abuse of players by fans?

There were several fines handed down by UEFA to national Football Associations for the improper conduct of fans, as well as one fine for “improper conduct” to Nicklas Bendtner for wearing sponsored pants. The amounts shed light on where UEFA’s priorities lie:

Spain were fined €20,000 for racially abusing Mario Balotelli
Russia were fined €30,000 for making monkey noises at Czech Republic right-back Theodor Gebre Selassie.
Croatia were fined €30,000 for displaying racist banners in their match against Spain, then fined a further €80,000 for racial abuse of Mario Balotelli. Clearly the first fine had a massive effect.

Bendtner, however, was fined €100,000 for his Paddy Power pants.

Ambush marketing a worse crime in the eyes of UEFA than racial abuse? Given these fine amounts, it would seem so. Given that the racism fines were handed out to the Football Associations of each respective country, and Bendtner was fined as an individual (and given a one match suspension for Denmark’s next match, a World Cup qualifier) it makes them seem like even more token gestures. When you look at the amounts of prize money from the tournament, UEFA’s lack of real action appears even more stark:

Spain: €23,000,000
Russia: €10,500,000
Croatia: €10,500,000

Somehow I think that between the three nations, a cumulative fine of €160,000 will be more than tackled by a total prize money of €44,000,000.

Another interesting little side note is that Russia also have a suspended 6 point deduction hanging over their heads for the Euro 2016 qualifying phase, but UEFA chose not to activate it.

Personally, I believe that the best way for UEFA to tackle racism and fan problems is to hit those that it hurts the most – the fans. Remember when English clubs weren’t able to take part in Europena competitions because of hooliganism fears? That forced the hand of the FA, clubs and fan groups to get things sorted out, and I think that this is the direction UEFA ought to head in. My ideas include

  • Matches at tournaments played without fans of guilty teams – eg, at fist group game of World Cup 2014, Spain play with no Spanish fans.
  • Point deductions – either from qualifying or in the group stages of the next tournament. For instance, deduct 2 points for each incident of racist abuse by fans, either in a tournament, in qualifying or in  friendly matches. So for example, going into the next qualifying period, Spain are deducted 2 points, Russia 2 points and Croatia 4 points. If you limit the chances of the team qualifying, then the fans might peer-pressure each other into not shouting abuse, or carrying racist banners.
  • Take away prize money. Paltry fines don’t work, set a double standard and just make UEFA look either ineffective or negligent. If you deduct 25% of prize money for each instance of racist abuse (and in my mind, donate that 25% to charities fighting bigotry and intolerance in sport) then the FA in that country will work a hell of a lot harder to police things in the stands and make a stand, since they will be hit in the pocket.
  • Any combination of the above. If there are persistent breaches of the law, then they can be punished with a combination of actions.

Until UEFA show that they are serious about tackling racism in football, then it will be there, it will be blatant, and it will get worse. This is not a time for administrators to hide behind weak rules and cowardly attempts at enforcement, this is a time and an opportunity to really send a message.

Intolerance in Football: Fashanu, Terry, Suarez and UEFA

Intolerance in football is a problem. I don’t think you will be able to find many people who will disagree with that statement. Whether it is Luis Suarez and John Terry or the fact that there is only 1 professional football player who is openly gay, not in England, but in the entire game (for those of you interested, it is Anton Hysen of Utsiktens BK in Sweden). He is, for those who don’t know, only the second gay professional footballer ever, after Justin Fashanu. Out of the around 3,000 professional football players in England, there is not a single one who is able to be open about their sexuality. Not just for the sport, but for society, that is an embarrassment. But as John Amaechi pointed out recently, is this really a surprise when the board of the FA, who run the game in this country, have only just got their first female board member.

Some numbers:

3,000: approximate number of professional footballers in England

0: Openly gay professional footballers

£6,000: fine for former Leicester City player Michael Ball for tweeting homophobic comments

16: Number of professional clubs (out of 92) who are willing to openly back The Justin Campaign’s Football v Homophobia initiative.

These make for pretty depressing reading. The FA needs to do better – for a start by stepping up efforts to stamp out intolerance in any form (including anti-Semitism against Tottenham fans and players) by making the punishments for offences actually mean something. Suarez ought to have had a much stronger penalty – if fans are banned from grounds for racist chanting, why does a player only receive an 8 game ban? The fines for the likes of Michael Ball must be so steep that it is actually a disincentive to not display such bigotry. If clubs are made responsible for the actions of their players, then that would offer a real reason for them to police their own dressing rooms. For example, if Terry is found guilty, how about a points deduction. Similarly for Liverpool and Luis Suarez. If a player’s actions hurt not only him but his teammates, club and fans, do you think that might have an impact?

It is not just the FA who need to step up to the plate though – UEFA also need to make it known to clubs and fans that homophobia, racism and other abuse will not be tolerated. If fans at a match in Spain are making monkey chants, for example, then don’t fine the club €30,000 and say you are tackling the problem. That will make no difference to anyone. Games played behind closed doors, point deductions and exclusion from European competitions might. You did it for hooliganism, time to do likewise for bigotry. Make people think twice before they decide to hurl abuse at someone for the colour of their skin, their religion or their sexual preference.

Do I think that these things will happen? Given the record of UEFA and the FA, no.

On Luis Suarez: He has been found guilty. His punishment ought to have been much harsher. Kenny Dalglish, those supporting shirts and the actions of some of their fans should make everyone involved or supporting of Liverpool football club look at what their club has been condoning, and they should feel disappointed at the action of some of their people. I will boo Suarez for the rest of his career in England.

On John Terry: He has not been found guilty of anything yet. As things stand, I support Terry as a Chelsea player and club captain. If he is found guilty, then he deserves to be neither of these things. The club dispensed with the services of Adrian Mutu when he was found to be using drugs, (a decision I supported), and I believe that a similar stance must be taken with racism and intolerance. Leicester fired Ball after his homophobic comments, which was exactly the right decision. We must, as a club, make the same stand with Terry. There can be no excuse, and although I have sung songs in support of Terry for a decade, the club and its responsibility to the community must come first. Innocent until proven guilty. If guilty, then he must be punished.

I am a Chelsea fan, and East Stand season ticket holder. I am disappointed every time elements of our fans chant about Hillsborough, Munich or sing anti-Semitic songs at Tottenham fans, and I did not boo Anton or Rio Ferdinand for their stance on John Terry. I do not do any of these things, and a lot of the people who sit near me in the East Stand upper also don’t. It is important to know that not all football fans who go to games week in, week out sing such offensive things. But until everyone in the ground chooses not to allow songs about the deaths of fellow fans, or a players race or sexuality, we need to keep pushing for better education, more pro-active administration and harsher penalties for those who persistently display such intolerance, bigotry and hatred.

Being a lefty Chelsea fan

I’ve always found there to be something of a contradiction between my political beliefs and my support of Chelsea – especially since it was bought by Roman Abramovich.
On one hand I think that there are much better uses to which £160,000 a week can be put than paying John Terry’s wages, and yet I have a season ticket so that I can go and watch a group of hugely overpaid people play a game. It is hyped, discussed, built up, dramatised and promoted more than almost any other occupation, but it is still a game.
These incredibly well paid people are professionals, and despite the behaviour of many of them off the field (this includes several of the current squad) they are skilled at what they do – though I am still at a loss to explain the 3-0 home defeat to Sunderland. The contracts football players at the top levels are on are a fairly solid proof of the most solid foundation of capitalism – people earn what the market will tolerate them earning, for the skills they have. But just because you can pay someone £10million a year (before bonuses), doesn’t mean that you should.
From a political, and moral, point of view, there is something wrong when you have a Russian oligarch, who is not entirely free of controversy, hands over £50 million to a group of Americans, so that one Spanish player can move from Liverpool to London, and sign a contract rumoured to be worth £175,000 a week – surely there are better uses to which all this money can be put? I do not know what kind of tax avoidance is undertaken by footballers, but I am certain that, though many clubs like Chelsea are involved with a variety of charities, there is certainly more that could be done to help those not fortunate enough to be on multi-million pound deals.
The conflict between politics and football arises here, since despite everything written above, I am delighted that my team has signed Torres and David Luiz, because I love watching Chelsea play, especially when they are winning. Signing one of the worlds best strikers and one of the best defensive prospects in the game will help us do that.
I think that the contradiction is causes by how I think about Chelsea. When I use my brain, applying logic and reason to how I feel about the club, then I agree that there are better ways to spend all that money, and certainly no one person is worth handing over that much cash, no matter how skilled at his job he may be.
But when I think about how being at Stamford Bridge at the end of last season to watch us lift the Premier League trophy, all the other stuff goes out the window. I remember the elation, the joy of myself and everyone else who stayed in the ground singing, chanting, clapping and dancing as the trophy was paraded before us. I remember it being one of the best moments I have shared with my dad in years, both of us jumping up and down, clapping, cheering and generally making fools of ourselves. I remember the guy sitting in front of me, who must have been approaching retirement, who had tears running down his face. Those feelings make all the valid points about the excesses go out the window. For a fan, watching your team succeed is an incredible thing. It manages to make all the worries you have about your future, your job, finances or relationships disappear for a little while, so that you and 41,000 other people inside that small part of west London can go absolutely mental.
When I am asked by people who are not football fans how I can be happy that we have signed someone on a huge contract, making more money in a week than I might see in a decade, I don’t really have an answer. That is what they have been paid. I don’t think it is right that footballers earn the insane amounts of money that they do. But I still want my team to win.