Football has not missed anger and cruelty…

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Football has not missed anger and cruelty…

Football is decent theatre at the moment. There’s handing in a transfer request at Barcelona. There’s Harry Maguire allegedly hitting it up in Greece. There’s Raheem Sterling hanging out with Usain Bolt.

Actually, who needs the football? The pre-silly season is always good for headlines. It is August after all. Even Thomas Muller is making awful jokes. So bad he named Robert LewanGOALski twice.

On the whole, Project Restart was a box-office hit given that the play had actors but no live audience. But while it’s good fun to hear Frank Lampard ripping into Liverpool on the touchline about their maiden Premier League success, most of us want to hear the roar of the stadium again.

Social media still stinks the place out when it comes to beating up players, but one useful aside of the no-crowd-allowed policy was that the much-used tool of abuse – booing and barracking – disappeared from our screens.

As Arsenal fan and comedian Dara O’Briain once said: “Footballers are not performing elephants; they should not be beaten with brooms to get them to improve, much as we might sometimes like to.”

When Granit Xhaka walked off the pitch at the Emirates last Autumn, he was in a bad place. Arsenal were in a bad place. There was no respectful smattering of applause. Unwisely, the Swiss responded in kind. Lip-readers needed no professional status to understand the content of the invective. The atmosphere was poisonous. It was unsavoury.

Nobody’s pretending top-level football is a game of tiddlywinks. It is brutal. Bad things are said and done. Honesty sometimes needs to come with venting of the spleen.

But last time we checked, Xhaka is human. He is not an automated robot. The episode hurt. Three colleagues visited him at his home, so concerned were they for his welfare. Nobody had died but Lucas Torreira, not a man who you could describe as over-emotional, was visibly upset on the touchline at the abuse. It’s a football match. Football is the most important of the least important things. We know all of that. Let’s not even mention perspective. It just shouldn’t really happen.

There is a wider point to be made about how audiences ‘should’ react to what’s put in front of them. We pay our money in the bearpit; we demand entertainment. Or fear more of the awful same. When that comes, we rant and rave. Or mutely accept. A journey that starts with hope then makes grown mature people unusually angry.

As UEFA plans for a limited crowd at the Super Cup in a month, can we try to stop looking at footballers through the same prism when given the knee-jerk of the close-up? If anything, this crisis has shown there are some damn fine human beings out there who kick a ball for a living. See Marcus Rashford. For every footballer who might allegedly say “Do you know who I am?” there’s another who is quietly doing fine work off the pitch.

As the return of the Nations League looms – “the most senseless competition in the world”, according to Jurgen Klopp – we are reminded of how some English fans behaved when they got knocked out in the last tournament. Henry Winter wrote: ‘Virgil van Dijk, PFA Player of the Year, imperious Liverpool footballer, European champion, role model, class act on and off the field, supporter of the Red Cross, paid for Christmas party at Anfield for 120 kids suffering from cancer, is being booed by England fans.’

Phew. That’s a heck of a sentence, Henry.

You see, this is the thing. Barracking is what happens to the good, the bad and the indifferent. It has crossed the line from tribal rivalry to personal hatred. Booing is something that exists as the most easily distinguishable form of disapproval, no matter how skewed or selective that is.

It’s not big, it’s not clever and it rarely helps, but it won’t go away. Life is unfair.

Even Fergie once said: “That’s the nature of football nowadays – it’s like a social disease.”

Philosopher Julian Baggini appears to be closest to what really stokes us: “All cultures have areas which suspend rules and going into a football stadium gives you a kind of licence for a raw unfiltered emotion, a suspension of decent behaviour. Normal people start calling people the worst words. It’s one of the few social occasions where it’s acceptable to say you hate someone.”

That rule does not apply to everyone, but you might recognise yourself in there somewhere; maybe just start to question it. No thought police needed. Freedom of speech remains but let’s try to see if we can rage against the machine without short-circuiting.

Tim Ellis – follow him on Twitter

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