Comment: The ugly side of tribalism in football

Ellie Hayward 19 November 2012

Oh the irony. Luis Suarez – stamping racism out of football, literally. The striker’s collision with John Terry during Liverpool’s clash with Chelsea a week last Sunday has left the Chelsea captain out of action for at least the next four games. For Liverpool fans, this undoubtedly represents some form of divine retribution following Terry’s lenient 4-game ban for racial abuse of Anton Ferdinand. After all, had he been given the same 8-game ban as Suarez was for abusing Patrice Evra then he would not have been eligible to face Liverpool in the first place.

It was almost inevitable that it would be the names of Suarez and Terry who would dominate the back pages on Monday morning. Indeed, the ability of these two players to attract the limelight is one that is only exceeded by their ability to inspire loathing. In the divided and tribal world of football there’s not much that unites the majority of supporters, but a common hatred of Terry and Suarez might just be one. The embroilment of both players in racism scandals last year had the effect of elevating them out of the pantomime villain sphere usually occupied by disliked footballers and into previously unchartered territory of unpopularity.

Nevertheless, despite both players having been convicted of racism by the FA, supporters of their respective teams remain quite happy to leap to the defence of their idols. There was nothing quite like seeing Chelsea fans happily unveil their “Captain, Leader, Legend” banner while simultaneously booing the announcement of Suarez’s name to highlight football’s moral maze. In the heated field of football rivalry, supporters will allow their loyalty to teams and players to compromise their own morals. I can’t have been the only one who felt exceptionally uncomfortable seeing the Liverpool squad warm up in Suarez t-shirts after the accusations of racism were first levelled at him last year. Surely the issue of racism is one that should transcend football rivalry?

Liverpool and Chelsea’s decision to staunchly back their players taught us that, when one of their own is accused, the priority of clubs is no longer kicking racism out of football but that self-interest, unfortunately, takes precedent. If the same conviction and vigour that Liverpool applied to defending Suarez was applied to tackling racism then football might be in a much better position than it is today. Unfortunately, the reactions of the two clubs and their supporters to the drawn-out sagas suggested a failure to see the bigger picture and reluctance to deal with the bigger issue.

Rivalry should be celebrated, passion encouraged. But when the automatic response of a set of supporters to one of their players being accused of racism is to proclaim that the accuser is lying, it is perhaps time to get things in perspective. After all, it’s only football.

Ellie Hayward