Portsmouth and former England defender Sol Campbell caused great debate among football pundits over the Christmas period after he called a BBC Radio show to complain about the abuse that players receive from fans at football matches. He said "If this happened on the street, you would be arrested. This is a human rights situation, where sportsmen and managers are trying to do their job professionally and people are abusing them verbally. It has gone too far".
Much of that is impossible to argue with. Fans frequently do get arrested on the street for abusive behaviour, and abuse targetted at professionals doing their job is a sickly sight in modern society. But, no matter how much journalists pontificate on the nasty depths to which football fans will sink for a song, this kind of outburst isn't going to change the mind of any football fan. In fact, Campbell can probably expect extra songs and chants aimed in his direction from ruthless supporters who aren't willing to accept the merits of his sensitive appeal. As a fan myself, I understand exactly why this call will fall on deaf ears. The fact is that football is more than just a game; it holds deep and complex meanings for communities in many countries like England; and 'footballers' and 'fans' cannot simply be reduced to the respective equivalents of 'professionals' and 'customers' when it is convenient to do so.
Campbell may superficially think or claim that all he does is kick a ball around a field, but tens of millions of men around the world do not dedicate their lives to following football for such simple reasons. The football stadium is a theatre where dramas are played out among familiar and unfamiliar characters, including good guys, bad guys and outright villains. (If anyone has the right to complain about abuse, it's the referee: he takes abuse from both sets of fans, the players, and the media, without generous financial compensation, or the chance to wallow in the cheers or praise that follow a goal or a victory). Just as an audience will boo a pantomime villain, so fans can boo players and officials. But football is a very different kind of leisure pursuit than theatre-going because of the complex nature of what it means to support a club. Real football fans associate their club (and/or national team) with their own identity so strongly that the on-field fortunes of their team have direct emotional effects. This is no slapstick comedy for children. To paraphrase the great Bill Shankly: football isn't a matter of life and death, it's much more important than that.
It's this close and direct emotional attachment that makes a football fan different from a conventional 'customer'. Players like Campbell would not earn the massive salaries they do without this emotional link between club and fans. How many spectators in a stadium are impartial observers who decided to spend £30 or more on 90 minutes of unpredictable outdoor entertainment for the sheer hell of it? It must be a handful at most - the vast majority of spectators are loyal fans who feel deeply affected by the action on the pitch, and corporate guests who care more about their suits than the form of the striker. The latter, of course, aren't the 'fans' Campbell is complaining about. But the former - the fans who feel passionately connected to the events on the pitch - are the lifeblood of a football club. Take these fans away and the worldwide game dies.
When this group of fans get over-emotional, of course they often go too far in saying, shouting, or singing things which are usually deemed unacceptable. For obvious reasons, some abuse is never acceptable in any setting. Racist abuse has such a damaging potential and such a horrific history that it should always be vehemently discouraged and stigmatised. Any kind of physical threat is, of course, totally unacceptable - for example if a fan throws a lighter or a coin at a player. Also, while I don't believe that in-stadium abuse is particularly harmful, when it is taken onto the streets or into daily life generally, that is of course a different matter (and we have criminal laws to deal with that). Even children know that the man who pretends to be the pantomime villain is not a bad man, really.
But fans do more than just yell disgusting insults at players and officials. Where emotions are involved, sensible and rational adult behaviour is usually the first casualty. Fans might behave like offensive children, but they also might cheer and dance and sing the glories of their favourite players when they, if you believe the reduction, are doing no more than kicking a ball about. When a player scores, watch him turn to the crowd with his arms spread out as if to channel the fans' adulation towards him. It's not the corporate guests that are sharing the love there: it's the helplessly devoted fans who pay good money for the right to have their say; who feel ecstatic at the sight of a goal or a great save; and who feel crushed and angry when the ball goes in at the wrong end. Football is the most popular sport in the world because of the myriad emotions that follow from passionately supporting a team: joy and sorrow, frustration and relief, anxiety and euphoria, love and hatred. Football, like life, is not all plain-sailing, and not everybody will like you, or agree with you. The fans accept that sometimes you have to take the rough with the smooth. Players must also accept that sticks and stones may break some bones - as might a high tackle or an accidental clash - but names will never hurt you, no matter how infantile or vicious.
If Sol Campbell wants to know just how easy it is to offend someone with a heat-of-the-moment outburst, his own invocation of the concept of human rights in this issue can serve as a convenient example. Human rights is a concept that is already under fire from the general public thanks to the extremely misinformative coverage it receives in the tabloid press. It's deeply disappointing to see a man as articulate and intelligent as Campbell use the term in this context. On the same day that Campbell made his call to the BBC, two other news items caught my eye: three British men were released from Guantanamo Bay after spending four years in captivity without facing a single criminal charge; and Watford player Al Bangura lodged an appeal against a government decision to deport him back to Sierra Leone, from where he had escaped horrific fighting in the civil war. Perhaps, when seen in this light, Campbell might want to think again about whether the protection of human rights really means censuring the language of football fans so as to not hurt players' feelings.