Wednesday, September 2, 2009

That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore

"He's not the Messiah. He's a very naughty boy!"

Arsenal’s exciting start to the new season came to a crashing halt at Old Trafford as they contrived to somehow lose a match where they had played Manchester United off the park. A needless penalty (and yes, it was a penalty, even though Wayne Rooney went down like a particularly unattractive sack of potatoes) and the most comical own goal you will ever see was not so much the proverbial case of shooting yourself in the foot as taking an AK-47 and blasting off both legs. However, even though the young guns were defeated, the quality of their football was highly encouraging.

What was disappointing about this match was Arsène Wenger yet again having to endure thousands of imbecilic Manchester United fans singing, “Sit down, you paedophile”. I have been in two minds as to whether to comment on this, as I have no desire to give these cretins the oxygen of any publicity and it could be argued that making a big deal of the chant is only going to encourage them. Wenger himself has never raised the issue, partly because it's palpably untrue, partly because these morons are not worth worrying about, but presumably also because he fears that the chant might then be sung at every ground. This is a legitimate concern, but on the other hand not even Spurs and Chelsea fans (our main London rivals) have stooped so low as to repeat it, while United fans have been bellowing it out for over ten years.

"Please don't feed the animals"

No, it seems to be a uniquely United phenomenon and we’re not talking about a small, mindless minority here. Large sections of the crowd, thousands upon thousands of them, welcome Wenger to the “theatre of dreams” every year by directing this vile chant at him. It is a hideous song when aimed at anyone, but when targeting a man with a daughter now old enough to understand what it means, it beggars belief and is totally beyond the pale. Every time Arsenal’s manager dares to stand up at Old Trafford, you can hear people screaming this unacceptable bile, often in front of their own children.

As if that were not bad enough, referee Mike Dean took time off from deputising for Rio Ferdinand in the United defence in order to send Wenger to the stands for the heinous crime of kicking a water bottle. With just thirty seconds remaining, what sort of idiot thinks that it would be a good idea to present the baying masses with the target of their hatred? With nowhere to go, Wenger was forced to stand among the fans that had been roundly abusing him throughout the match. Why not go the whole hog and place Wenger in the stocks while providing the loathsome mob with rotten vegetables to throw at him? Fortunately, Wenger is a classy individual, who did not lose his cool.

"You're once, twice, three times an idiot"

Obviously every football crowd will sing against the opposition and it’s good fun to rile the fans of other teams, but there has to be a limit, a line that shouldn’t be crossed. I remember many years ago standing on the North Bank at Highbury, when the legendary Peter Shilton was playing for Nottingham Forest, the day after he had been caught playing away with a girl called Tina, and heartily chanting “T-i-i-i-n-a” and ”Does your Mrs. know you’re here?” throughout the game in an attempt to put him off, but that’s not in the same league as the vitriol chanted at Wenger. Even the “sit down” chant can be amusing, when it is adapted to something less contemptible, such as when rival fans sung “Sit down, Pinocchio” to the large-nosed Phil Thompson.

Unless he’s deaf, United’s manager “Sir” Alex Ferguson must be aware of this filthy chant, especially as he loudly complained in the media last year about the treatment he had received at The Emirates, but that was really nothing compared to the abuse heaped on his Arsenal counter-part. The United fans have rightly criticised the sick chants sung by some of their northern rivals about the Munich air crash, but seem blissfully unaware of their double standards. The next time I watch those fans fall silent to commemorate their dead, I will be wondering whether the same people will be chanting despicable abuse just a few weeks later.

"Red faced with embarrassment?"

It is high time that United did something to stop this chant. Everyone associated with the club should be embarrassed when it rings around Old Trafford and ashamed at their failure to deal with it. The least that they could do is to offer an apology. Their inaction is truly unbecoming of a club of their stature and tradition. With the presence of CCTV cameras in every part of the ground, it would be very easy to identify the main perpetrators, ban them from the ground and send them back to Surrey. A few tough examples would quickly deter the masses, but for some reason they haven’t done a damn thing.

When Tottenham fans abused Portsmouth’s Sol Campbell, the clubs helped the police to identify those responsible by releasing video images. As the court said when sentencing those meatheads, “We find that the words used were in extremely bad taste, they were inappropriate, shocking and disgusting, and as such they were indecent." Precisely – it’s a question of basic decency. From that perspective, there’s surely no difference between gay slurs and calling someone a paedophile - except that the latter insult is unquestionably worse.

Something that should be stopped right now is the sale of an album of Manchester United songs that unbelievably includes the “sit down” chant, which is freely available on Amazon. What next? How about commemorative Munich air crash plane seats? Or authentic Hillsborough stretchers? Just when you think that people couldn’t sink any lower …

"Young United fan protected from Wenger chant"

Another question worth asking is why the Football Association allows this chant to be swept under the carpet. They could easily warn United that they will be fined or even have points deducted if their fans sing the offensive chant again. The FA has rightly long campaigned against racism and homophobia in the game, but for some reason has turned a blind eye to this behaviour. The FA’s core values include a commitment to making football a family friendly sport and it is justifiably proud of its efforts to stamp out racist nonsense, but it hasn’t lifted a finger to remove this stain from our game.

The media is equally guilty in my eyes, as they seem to have collectively decided to gloss over the abuse dished out by the United faithful. Shame on television and the press for blatantly ignoring this ugly bullying. It’s not as if they are unaware of this disgraceful chant. When watching Sky’s live coverage of the game, you could clearly hear the singing, but later that day on the BBC’s Match of the Day highlights it was evident that they deliberately tried to quieten the sound. OK, I understand why they would do that, but can’t they press United on the issue? Obviously, they couldn’t put the point directly to Lord Demento of Ferguson, as he is allowed to get away with not communicating to the club’s fans via the nation’s prime TV channel, but please devote some airtime to the issue, for the love of God.

I don’t really believe in media conspiracies, but you have to ask yourself if there isn’t some sort of concerted attempt to ignore as far as possible any really unsavoury incidents in the “best league in the world” (© Richard Keys). In the last week we witnessed some truly horrific scenes in and around Upton Park as West Ham and Millwall fans fought running battles, invaded the pitch on numerous occasions and left a father of two stabbed. The following night we saw a player, Eduardo, pilloried for diving to win a penalty. Two questions for you: (1) in the wider scheme of things, which incident would you consider to be more serious? (2) which incident do you think received more media coverage over the next few days? Right, and right again.

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