It’s not always easy being a lefty-liberal football fan. Luckily in New Zealand when I see boorish behaviour associated with sport, I’m usually able to brush it off as ‘rugby culture’ and my conscience is clear. I can sleep soundly, safe in the knowledge that I’m not supporting something that promotes violence and bigotry. Of course it’s not really true and every now and again I get a painful reminder of why. The most recent example of this was the racist chanting directed at Mario Balotelli by Roma fans during Serie A’s penultimate round a few weeks ago. I should have closed the browser window that contained my Twitter feed, but sadly it was one of those things that it’s hard to take your eyes off. To be fair, many Romanisti were as appalled as I was and that was very heartening. But far too many made excuses for the behaviour of our ultras, and worst of all, it took the club a good 24 hours to condemn what happened. Better late than never, but it should have been one of those things you don’t have to think about – what’s right is what’s right.
A football season is a story of heroes and villains – this is one of the things that makes our game so appealing to the masses. There are teams or clubs that we all love to hate and others that not many people will say a bad word about. The characteristics that classify a club as ‘goodies’ or ‘baddies’ are many and varied.
It’s often simply about success, or lack of it. If you were to name me a club that nobody hates, chances are they’ve never done anything to piss anyone off – AKA win stuff. Winning can gain you admirers, but win too often and haters are gonna hate. There will be those who are jealous because you have robbed them of their team’s success, or others who are simply bored with you winning all the time and want to see someone different have their turn. Just like nobody wants to see ten different movies that all follow the same plot, likewise nobody particularly wants football seasons to all end with the same winner year after year.
There are also clubs that have ‘reputations’. Reputations as cheaters, divers, sore losers, practitioners of dirty tactics, players of ugly football, or “a bunch of show ponies” to name but a few common gripes.
Then of course, sometimes it’s just personal. “I hate X team because in 1927, Curly Smith laced his boots up the wrong way, came on as a substitute against us and scored the winning goal from an offside position. To this day he’s never owned up. Been dead 20 years of course but that’s not the point.”
All that stuff is perfectly understandable and comes part and parcel with human nature.
What is more tricky for me to explain though is the levels of personal hatred some players get directed at them. Clubs are not individuals, so, for example, my completely rational seething hatred of Inter is not really hurting anyone in particular. Except maybe Massimo Moratti, on the off chance he one day stumbles across my Twitter feed, but let’s face it – HE deserves it… With players it’s different.
They might be, in Europe at least, ridiculously highly paid and famous, and they often behave pretty badly. But don’t we all? When you boil it all down, footballers are just ordinary people who are paid to do a job. They have feelings just like us regular Joes and Josephines, and when they are subjected to personal abuse, it hurts.
We know them, but they don’t know us. This makes us brave and able to use our anonymity as a shield to protect us against the consequences of our bravado. Footballers don’t have that luxury. Everything they say is reported and judged. So when fans, for example, call players fat ***** from the stands, their targets have no means to retaliate. This is what makes fan abuse of players a fairly cowardly act in my opinion and what makes me sympathise to some extent with the Eric Cantona type solution…
Even worse than fans who abuse players for being fat ***** though, are fans who abuse players for the colour of their skin. And even worse than that again, in my book, is others who see such abuse and then excuse it.
In the case of the Balotelli incident, the excuse was that there were other black players on the pitch who were not subjected to the same abuse, ergo, the monkey noises were not because Balotelli is black, but instead because he’s quite simply a nitwit. So, in other words, someone on their couch at home, who obviously lives a completely blameless existence, decides that because they don’t happen to like Balotelli, this means he’s fairly judged to be deserving of monkey chants, and said monkey chants are not racist.
So my question is, what has Mario Balotelli done to deserve such hatred if it’s not simply because he happens to be black? Is it because he scored two wonderful goals (that he dedicated to his mum) against Germany to put Italy through to the Euro 2012 final? Is it because he helped Manchester City to win the English Premier League? Or Inter to win Serie A? Is it because he doesn’t celebrate his goals because “when the postman delivers your letter, does he celebrate?” Perhaps it’s because he was abandoned as a child and brought up by wonderful and devoted foster parents? Maybe it’s because he has been known to randomly hand large sums of money over to homeless people? Or is it because he’s been known to confront schoolyard bullies on behalf of their victims?
But regardless of the answer, the worst thing of all, of all, of all, about this, from an entirely selfish perspective, is it probably means we’ll never see Mario play for Roma. Because I am of the firm opinion that he’s a wonderfully gifted footballer and a magnificent human being who has overcome very difficult circumstances to make of his life what he has. He has my total admiration and I’d have dearly loved to have seen him not celebrate goals in giallorosso. Instead, watching him not celebrate them for Italy shall just have to suffice and I am at least grateful for that privilege. Forza Super Mario!
A grassroots sports photography enthusiast based in Auckland, New Zealand, and a fan of the most magnificent football club on earth - A.S. Roma.