It took a hell of a lot of coincidences and unpredictable events to get English football to where it is today.
A country voted to remove itself from a union by pissing all over its legs until the other party let them go. That heady cocktail of disenfranchised nihilism, inherent mistrust of outsiders, and picket fence parochialism radicalised some into believing the most present threat to the average person is a handful of people arriving on the Kent coast in dinghies. Successive governments looking for short term financial gain privatising services, pushing a service economy that grudgingly supplies shit money for work that may or may not be available tomorrow.
A global pandemic widened the fissure. George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in a manner so heinous it should feel otherworldly but that sick feeling in your belly tells you it lives here now.
Footballers took the knee in what was a moment of great pride for some of us, tired of the constant ‘spoilt, overpaid nancy boys’ narrative. Some club fans booed. The players kept kneeling and the boos got louder.
England got to the final of EURO 2020 anyway. Amid drunken fighting, a man stuck a flare-up his arse in Leicester Square. The match went to penalties and three young men, one of whom had embarrassed the government into feeding children during the aforementioned pandemic, stepped up to take the penalty kicks that would determine whether England would lift a major trophy for the first time in fifty-five years.
They missed and a switch flicked in a lot of minds. When I wake up in the morning, I thought, social media will be a bonfire with those lads atop it. Like George Floyd, their supposed crime was dwarfed by the punishment they received. Why?
Because they were all black.
Racism, homophobia, sexism and violence are the Four Horsemen of football’s apocalypse. And the lens has shifted now, football being a microcosm of society at large. Like an eclipse, football has briefly become a lens offering a clear view of our society.
It’s a reckoning and going to hurt. When the Premier League season starts in a couple of weeks players plan to continue taking the knee, dismissing disingenuous claims they’re supporting a Marxist movement intent on defunding the police. They’ve indicated that talks have taken place and they intend to continue disobeying a minority disingenuously insistent that politics cannot coexist with sport.
While we’re all here, certain we’re on the right side of history, let’s get it all out on the table.
In news that will surprise no one familiar with his football career and associated works, it’s been reported that Joey Barton has been charged with assault by beating. In a statement, the Met Police confirmed that “the charge relates to an incident which took place at a residential property in Kew on Wednesday 2 June in which a woman received a head injury”. At the time of writing, Barton pled not guilty to the charge in court. Newspaper reports claim the victim of the assault is Barton’s wife Georgia, although she herself has denied that in an Instagram post. The club he manages, Bristol Rovers, made a statement so flagrantly biased, media sources have not reported it for legal reasons.
Barton is not the first player to have been accused of violence towards women during his career. In April this year, former Manchester United and Wales winger Ryan Giggs was charged with assaulting two women and coercive and controlling behaviour between December 2017 and November 2020. He pled not guilty to the charges but stood down from his role as Wales manager before EURO 2020.
The recent death of Diego Maradona, a man generally agreed to be one of the finest players to strike a ball in history, provoked an almost unprecedented outpouring of grief among fans. His artful, elegant and frequently controversial actions on the pitch seemed to capture the very essence of football and to many, 25th November 2020 was and will forever be the Day the Football Died.
It would be unfair to say that coverage of Maradona’s other hobbies was neglected. Joan Smith, writer and chair of the Mayor of London’s violence against women and girls board, wrote a superb article in the Guardian pointing out that bad behaviour, specifically violence and abuse by high achieving sportsmen, is frequently overlooked by fans dazzled by on-field achievement. Maradona was filmed hitting his girlfriend of the time, Rocio Oliva, but denied it. He also denied other allegations before and since.
Paul Gascoigne has enjoyed a similar position in the public eye. Despite well-publicised episodes of physical violence and controlling behaviour involving his former wife Sheryl, the former England midfielder enjoyed yet another renaissance during EURO 2020 when his iconic goal vs. Scotland was used extensively in promotional material for the tournament. Midfielder Phil Foden bleached his hair in honour of Gascoigne’s EURO 1996 horror trim, and looked to emulate his hero during his appearances.
Indeed, Gascoigne and Maradona’s lives read like efforts to test the boundaries of how much bad behaviour football fans will accept before admitting their hero is an arsehole. And the answer appears to be a metric shit ton. The more talented they are, the more willing we are to forgive their transgressions.
Football is the perfect framework for this to unfold, and in those cases specifically, the apocryphal stories contribute to the ‘good lad’ narrative. George Best’s exquisite performances on the pitch were only augmented by his reputation as a top banter merchant.
“I used to go missing a lot… Miss Canada, Miss United Kingdom, Miss World,” he once said of his libidinous past. His witticisms and mastery of the football so pleasant to look at, they drew the eye from his less auspicious entanglements. Particularly the ones that ended in violent misogyny.
When their playing careers are over, the myths proliferate. They became figures of fun; their excesses a source of amusement and seen as an inevitable buckling beneath the sheer weight of their talent. Remember when Gazza did the Dentist’s Chair? When Maradona became ‘tired and emotional’ during Argentina’s game vs. Nigeria in the 2018 World Cup, the glass screen on his stadium box smeared in
cocaine baking soda? Kings gonna King.
We sympathise with these men when their inevitable flaws fulfil the criteria of the story we want to tell. But why, when describing greatness as a concept, in sport, as in art, music, and literature, do we consistently overlook the fact that great cruelty, violence, predation, and unfettered prejudice are frequently present as well? Wrestling with separating the art from the artist is hardly unique to football, but now we claim to be making a concerted effort to rid the game of these endemic wrongs. It’s relatively easier with a case like Joey Barton, an unlikable figure seemingly determined to destroy a bang average legacy, but the real challenge comes in confronting it in those we otherwise worship.
This isn’t a call for cancellation. That serves no one and is a deeply flawed way of dismissing challenges to what we deem culturally acceptable at any given moment. Great art is great art and it’s up to the individual whether their consumption of it is soured by events outside its creation.
We’re simply suggesting that while we have the opportunity of a big reset in football – a moment in which we can all stand together as one, united against abuse – ignoring violence against women by the players we admire undermines the whole effort.
If you can see nuance in the way certain newspapers talk about Raheem Sterling, why can’t you understand that it’s offensive to confine Paul Gascoigne’s violence to a sentence involving the words ‘flawed genius’, or ‘mercurial talent’ before writing five hundred words about how he used to shoot at the White Hart Lane cockerel with an air rifle? Do you really think that by writing he ‘battled a lot of demons’, you’ve offered a three hundred and sixty degree view of the man attached to The Hand of God?
The men you adore won’t see your adulation and careful footsteps around their less celebrated activities. The women who suffer at the hands of violent men and use football as an escape will.