Football fans – where do we draw the line when it comes to abuse?

Emirates Stadium was a joyous place to be last Sunday for an Arsenal fan. Basking in the warm spring sunshine, thrashing our local rivals and taunting every failed touch – this was an unforgettable afternoon.  Yet what will also stick in the memory is the sickening chants that were sung, and more importantly the reaction to them. The jubilation of a 5-2 lead could not have been more in contrast with the simmering fury that came to the boil after Emmanuel Adebayor scored to put Tottenham 2-0 up.

What followed from a minority of Arsenal fans was wholly, and lamentably, entirely expected. “Shot in Angola: it should have been you” they sung furiously – a reference to the tragic events of January 2010 when Angolan terrorists killed three members of the Togolese African Cup of Nations party.  The response to this was heartening: those singing were told that this wasn’t on, and after effing and blinding about how this “is what football is about” and “what real fans do” they left to go and get refreshments, comically missing three Arsenal goals in the process. That’s what real fans go to see.

While it was hugely encouraging to see this sort of reaction, it made it apparent how terrace chanting is still a largely self-regulating practice. None of the stewards showed any inclination to question those chanting, nor did they a couple of years back when fans suggested that Ashley Cole had contracted AIDS from team-mate Didier Drogba.  A few fans were ejected from grounds a few seasons ago when they suggested that Adebayor’s “dad washes elephants and his mum is a whore”, but largely fans and indeed players are forced to suffer in silence. Moreover, this is an issue which affects almost every ground in the country. After all, those supporters singing about Adebayor on Sunday may have pointed to the fact that Tottenham fans sing despicable things about Arsenal Manager Arsene Wenger being a pedophile. Likewise for every Liverpool supporter singing about the Munich air disaster, you’ll find a United fan singing about Hillsborough.

When we questioned the singing of the Adebayor chants, we were told that if we didn’t like it, we should f**k off.  The obvious question then is: are the footballing authorities doing enough to tackle the issue? The answer would appear to be no, as singing of this sort continues to go largely unpunished.

The songs about Arsene Wenger became so deplorable in fact that Sir Alex Ferguson made a public plea to Manchester United fans not to sing them.  But in the FA’s defence, it is hard to quantify exactly what it is that is beyond the pale, as to a large extent this is subjective. When a supporter at the Emirates was told on Sunday that the Adebayor singing was “too much”, he responded that no it was not, in fact it was at just the appropriate level. It’s easy to snigger at this response and dismiss it, but it does show the subjectivity of what is acceptable.

The nature of football fans, and indeed human beings is they tend to see what they are doing as justifiable. I am typical in that I feel I support the team to just the right pitch, and yet many would find my actions highly questionable. I would never in a million years call a stranger on the street a c**t, but I confess to having called Adebayor one on Sunday. Down the years, I’ve probably called lots of others that or similar.  And this is where the problem lies: it’s not acceptable to call Wenger a paedophile, but then nor should it be to allege that Harry Redknapp’s mother is a whore (an allegation that is made at every single Arsenal game, and has been made at every single Tottenham manager since I’ve supported the club). Songs like these can be, and in my opinion rightly so, placed in a more light-hearted category, owing largely to the fact that they are utterly ludicrous.

Never has the danger of going too far the other way and becoming too draconian about chanting been better illustrated than FC Porto’s recent complaint about Manchester City Supporters. The Portuguese side lodged an official complaint to UEFA after their Europa League tie because City fans humorously sung “you’re not incredible” to Porto Striker Hulk (though this complaint was in particularly bad taste, as it was a thinly-veiled retaliation to Porto fans being accused of racially abusing City’s black players). The wit and wisdom of football fans is rarely better displayed than through chants, and long must this be celebrated. But fans must also accept responsibility that in this self-regulating environment they will have to stand up to the minority who sing about things that they feel are out of order, as it’s unlikely that stewards or anyone else is going to do it for them. Likewise they may wish to complain about words like “c**t” being used, but in this regard they would likely be overwhelmed by the sheer number of complaints they would have to make.

What Sunday suggested was that despite the element of subjectivity about how offensive songs are, a positive change is happening. Fans are much less likely to tolerate foul chanting around them, and the fact that we felt able to speak up is in itself a positive thing, and a move away from the horrendously intimidating grounds of the 1980s.  On Sunday, as the mood became more jovial, so did the chanting, and we left singing a simpler ditty: “Adebayor, what’s the score? (repeat to fade)”. It rhymed; it scanned; it was pure light-hearted schadenfreude, and that is what terrace chanting should be all about.

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