More than the few: on English football and South African xenophobia

The latest outburst of xenophobic violence in South Africa has, as you might expected, provoked comment and soul-searching. it’s distressing to watch the colours of the rainbow nation fragment. This time around other African governments have been drawn to comment, which has in its turn provoked a belated act of leadership from President Zuma. In his impassioned response to a Mozambican writerr’s criticisms of the incidents, Zuma argued that the detestable actions of the wrongdoers were the action of a ‘few’, of a minority.

This sparked a memory for me. A memory of the darkest days of English football. Allow me to explain (even if you despise football, please bear with me; I think this is important). In the 1980s, and into the 90s, English football experienced a period of self-recrimination and examination in the wake of a spate of football-related violence (much of this could also be said to be true of the sport in other nations, but I want to turn the lens on that closest to me). The strictures that resulted from this were severe: expulsion, for a time, of English clubs from the highest level of international club football, a series of changes to the way crowds were policed and legislated. We could also argue that it resulted in the structural changes to the game that resulted in the multi-millionaire culture of today’s Premier League, but let’s not go there for now. As the game’s public image sank, there was a frequent refrain from inside the game. It’s only a few fans

Using comparative statistics, that’s true. In a stadium of 40,000, only a minority would be real trouble makers. Most were indeed there to see the game. It’s true; but doesn’t make the dead and injured any less dead and injured. Various things needed to be done – some of the legislation (though perhaps not all) was appropriate and necessary. In addition to this, there needed to be invitations from those in football to a different way of following the sport; witness, for example, before the 1989 league title decider between Liverpool and Arsenal, the Arsenal players presenting wreathes of flowers in memory of deceased Liverpool fans. This two-pronged approach was necessary; but it missed a third prong, one which still lies (largely) unaddressed. The third prong revolves around the inherent problem of something that gives English football such a unique and special identity.

English football has an almost unique culture of fans travelling to support their team, and doing so with a special kind of noise, colour and passion. Globally there are few sporting events with the vibrant appeal of an English football derby (local rivalry); fixtures like Manchester United v Liverpool and Arsenal v Tottenham (Spurs) have an atmosphere you really have to experience to believe. This is because of the inherent tribalism in English football; these rivalries go back over a century, drawing fuel from sources wider than sport, into the very fabric of the communities which they represent. As a life-long Arsenal fan living on the other side of the world, the morning of a game with Tottenham, I wake up with a feeling in my stomach best described as adrenalised dread. This is what makes it special; it’s also what makes it dangerous. Fair warning: the contents of the next paragraph may offend.

When Tottenham player Sol Campbell moved to Arsenal, it provoked a storm of protest and anger. The song that some Tottenham fans sung at him ran thus (to the tune of Lord of The Dance): “Sol, Sol, wherever you may be/You’re on the verge of lunacy/And we don’t give a fuck when you’re hanging from a tree/Judas cunt with HIV”. Count yourself blessed if you don’t understand all the mental-health, racist and homophobic references in there. Arsenal fans were not blameless. A favourite response was the massed sound of air escaping between teeth aimed towards Tottenham fans. Tottenham has a strong base of support amongst North London’s Jewish community; the sound imitates gas in the Nazi death camps. 

Yes, it was only a few fans who engaged like this. But this hatred, which I’ve seen contorted onto the faces of desperately ordinary people, could only grow in the soil of the tribalism and rivalries at the heart of English football. Not every football fan was guilty; but we are all responsible for creating the environment in which it can flourish. Only when we acknowledge that can hatred be removed from football.

So back to South African xenophobia. We need more leadership and legislation. We also need hashtags and demonstrations of other ways to be South African. Some of these we are getting. But a third prong is needed. This third prong needs a kind of self-examination that seems rare in these fevered times. It needs a self-examination that says that all South Africans live under the curse of apartheid, have inherited (as argued persuasively by Professor Jonathan Jansen in Knowledge In The Blood) a view of life based not on shared humanity but on race. I’ve reflected elsewhere how moving to South Africa can make you feel more racist, forcing you to think in a way you never would have.

Since democracy came 21 years ago, South Africa has embraced a flag and a view of proud nationhood which the world loves. Think back to the 2010 World Cup; bad football, but a good face to the world for the country. It’s what makes the country so appealing to many outsiders – hope, life, new identity. Alongside that, the fruit of apartheid continues to grow in the heart of all South Africans; in the soil of proud nationalism, dismissal of the other easily grows. It was well taught by apartheid, and doesn’t go away just because all citizens have the vote. It’s just subtly refocussed. Now it’s the other nations who are ‘the other’. For most that’s benign; for a few, it’s xenophobic. The third prong of attack that’s needed is the humble and gracious self-examination that says that all South Africans have skin in this game, have learned prejudice in the blood and in some way have guilt to bear.

It’s doesn’t appears to be fair at first sight, but it’s really a deeper vision of justice than mere surface level fairness. Christians call it original sin. We’re all guilty. Until that’s owned, expressed and consciously turned from, all the well-meaning efforts of politicians and activists will be of limited effectiveness.

To our knees, then.

Stillness and Speed

I had finished a 25-hour shift at the London homeless hostel where I was working. My night had been broken, as it usually was on such shifts, by incidents in which the night-shift worker needed support and assistant. I can’t remember the details. I was lying semi-comatose on the couch of our staff accommodation, kept from sleep only by the breathtaking to and fro of one of the greatest games of football I had seen. I would sleep after, I told myself. Holland v Argentina, a dream tie in the World Cup quarter finals. A game of high quality, decided in the game’s dying embers by a Dennis Bergkamp goal of such art, delicacy and precision it jolted through my system like a triple espresso. I sat bolt upright, mouth open. I shouted something incoherent. It was perfect. If you don’t believe me, click here for a moment of sublime sporting beauty.

As you’ve just discovered, it’s hard for words to do justice to moments like that. Bergkamp specialised in such moments, moments of perfection which even opponents and opposition fans would applaud, the sort of moments you dream of being in the same vicinity as, let alone being part of. On the rare occasions I found myself watching from the stands as he plied his trade for Arsenal it felt like his awareness of what was going on around him and his economy of movement were so supernatural that there must be two of him, one on the pitch in constant communication with another in the stand, able to relay down to the Dennis on the pitch where everybody else was and where the spaces were developing.

Then there’s this goal, the balletic grace of which frankly belies description. Watch it, and tell me your life isn’t better for seeing it.

How do you justice in words to such a player. Sports biographies – especially football ones, it seems – do not have a great history of artfulness or appropriateness. They’re usually written too early, with little insight or context. This one is different. Stillness and Speed is the English language version of Holland and Arsenal’s Dennis Bergkamp’s story, told by David Winner through deft prose and a series of illuminating interviews with Bergkamp himself and his colleagues. It have many of the elements of the biography, but is really trying to do something else; to get a handle on how genius is born and how great art comes to be. Hard work is part of it; resolute attention to, for example, the way different balls bounced. Training, fun, a desire to always do something meaningful and not ‘just’ try to do a job or simply win a game. All of it coming together in the revelation that as regards the second goal related above, he decided what to do when the ball was 10 yards away. Instinctive genius, served by muscle memory.

It’s a beautiful book, and like all good books its genius is in lifting the specific (a footballer) and finding things to say that are relevant and interesting way beyond the one arena. It’s hard to imagine people who don’t like football reading this, but really this is one for those who want to dig deeply into how a genius is set apart. In that context it might make a good companion volume to Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers.

Mainly though, I’m grateful. Grateful to feel closer to one of my heroes, but not to have the mystique taken away. Grateful that the book does him justice but leaves genius of this type where I want it – just out of reach. Grateful he’s both ordinary and extraordinary. Just grateful, really.

Want more? 9 more masterpieces here for your enjoyment.

I rated this book 5/5 on

The Damned United: Universal Truth

Some films are damned by their subject matter. People think it’s too niche, not for them. A few years ago in London’s Leicester Square, I passed a man standing outside one of the many cinemas there, looking at the film times and talking on his mobile to the person who going to join him. They were trying to decide what they would see.

There were a couple of so-so blockbusters around, and showing in a few minutes was the magnificent documentary Touching The Void. Admittedly it’s a hard sell. It’s a mountaineering story of people assumed dead, of mistakes and severe injury. But its also utterly thrilling and inspiring; one of those universal human stories that will grip and connect with anyone who sees it. I’m no climber, I have no real love for it, but I’d recommend that film to anyone.

Back to the man on the phone. Here’s what I remember hearing him say:

‘You want to see Touching The Void? What’s it about……[silence]. Your idea of a good night out is a story about a cold climb going wrong? A documentary? Get out of town! Let’s just go for a beer”

Their loss. There will be similar reactions to the prospect of The Damned United. It’s a story about football, and while of course this has a wider appeal than does climbing, it’s about football in England in the 1970s. In the muddy, grimy north of England, where top level sport was considerably less glamorous than it was now. Although it’s central character (the great manager Brian Clough) was by any standards a charismatic and colourful man, this is film based on a book by the author David Peace. He’s a masterful writer, but in his hands just about every story and character is dark and disturbing.

So yes, this film is a tough sell. If you were a marketing person you would of course sell it by saying that it’s not really about football – you’d want to say that it’s about love or friendship or something like that. The causal viewer, however, with no interest in the subject matter, would roll their eyes and go to find a comedy.

If you do that, you miss out. Because this is a universal story, and it is about friendship and ambition; football’s just the context, and really there’s precious little of it on screen (which is good, as it’s a very difficult sport to film well). It’s about the hopes, fears and doubts that drive us and what happens when we let them get out of control. It’s about friendship as a hard but worthwhile journey. Anyone who’s ever said something they regret to someone they value; anyone who has ever tried to prove themselves bigger than someone who has slighted them, and fallen flat doing so; anyone who has been consumed by a job or a vision or an idea; anyone, in short, who has lived will find something of value, challenge and comfort here.

What’s more, this film has changed the tone of the book – it’s funny, warm, engaging and a little exciting. It should go without saying that Michael Sheen is brilliant in it, but we need to keep saying it until he gets the awards he so richly deserves. There other fine performances too – I particularly liked the affected distance of Colm Meaney as Clough’s nemesis.

Really this a story about what happens when we give into Macbeth’s vaulting ambition, when let ourselves be broken by the desire to dominate and gain revenge. This film isn’t perfect, but then neither are the people it tells us about. Which makes it all the more accessible for the rest of us.

If you’re a person with hopes and fears and ambitions, then this is for you. Don’t miss the wood for the trees.