The Beautiful Game

Matthew Collins on the battle against those who would defile the beautiful game with hate, and the hopeful signs that fans are uniting against racism…

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Chapter : The Beautiful Game

Matthew Collins on the battle against those who would defile the beautiful game with hate, and the hopeful signs that fans are uniting against racism on the pitch and in society.

The comparative description of football as “working class ballet” is widely attributed to Alf Garnett, an English caricature of an aged white Londoner spanning two decades (until 1986), who had tired of the modern world and multiculturalism in particular.

Garnett’s character was symbolic of a period of British television comedy that explored (and undermined) an increasingly multicultural and diverse modern country. 

It was an exploration that just went wrong. There was no calculated malice; just endless portrayals of non-white characters as simpletons and servants at odds with aggressive, rather dull but complicated white protagonists whose logic and language was condescending and racist. Garnett even populised the use of ‘the Yids’ as a term of abuse for Spurs fans.

Much of that comedy is now locked away, with even the Gold channels not willing to show it. But type ‘working class ballet’ into Google and this notion of the beautiful game is widely quoted, almost revered around the world. The loveable, cockney racist whose off the cuff utterance it was, is widely omitted.

My hero

My first (and still) footballing hero was a Black Londoner named Vince Hilaire who rejected the glamour and pedigree of the world famous West Ham United to play for his local, dour club Crystal Palace.  A couple of years ago I was writing an article and wanted to recapture that Hilaire emotion. I found an old news item, on Youtube, and Palace’s then manager, Allan Mullery, speaking about the young man in front of him said ‘he’s got a lovely tan’. Life imitates art, it is also said.

In Britain, working class ballet has been described by legendary Liverpool manager and socialist Bill Shankly as more important than simply life or death. Even ballet, with its graceful contortions of the human body to classical music, has caused less torment, pain, disgust and outrage than football. And nobody, nobody ever has been to war over the outcome of Swan Lake.

Football is tribal in the best and worst of traditions the world over. From the workers teams’ of the Soviets and the Partisans and Brigdistas of the former Yugoslavia and the East, to the factory teams of Manchester and the German automotive industry.

From the torment and squalor of the Irish immigrant and catholic tenements in Liverpool, Edinburgh and Glasgow have come world class football clubs and from that same torment and sectarianism on the streets of the west of Scotland, murders most foul.

Researching the Hillsborough tragedy reminded me of a time when society portrayed all football fans – including those whose lives were so tragically and criminally lost – as wild, unrepentant savages. As the establishment covered up the wrongdoings of the police, their prejudices about football fans couldn’t have been clearer, and more damming.

Football is about heroes and villains. From Marcus Rashford, the unofficial ‘leader of the opposition’ in Britain to Dixie Dean refusing to give a Nazi salute, to the thousands upon thousands of footballers and football fans around the world who have paid dearly, often with their lives.

The British public, as our polling shows, realise that football still has a racism problem.  During the recent Euro Championships, we had an English manager and team who clearly stood at odds with the vision of England being offered by some of our political leaders.

Offered these two visions of English identity, the public sided with the players.

When the auld enemy Scotland came to Wembley and joined their English opponents in taking the knee before kick-off whilst fascists outside leafletted in defeated angst, the beginnings of this battle was evident. And as ever, this battle goes right to the heart of the establishment and wider society. Let’s not forget, the British Home Secretary had given the green light to those who wanted to boo.

As we came out of lockdown it was most evident that football would be the vehicle by which we as a country would confront the snide racism that had fermented over the last year. A period where a young Black footballer from a council estate in Manchester literally helped feed thousands of children because the government did not want to.

For many, it felt like the British government did not want a team comprising of, and driven by, such people to win.

England’s racist problem – so often exhibited by those who follow the national team – has without doubt ruined the careers of many promising Black footballers and kept away thousands of people who loved the game but just could not imagine themselves at a football ground surrounded by the kind of hatred they witness on the television and in the news.

But the power dynamic is slowly swinging back to the football fans. In 2018, 11 Premier League clubs would have still posted a profit without fans attending their games. By 2021, football faces a financial crisis – due to fans being locked out of games by the pandemic.

The opposition to the proposed European Super League shocked and terrified club bosses as angry fans organised unprecedented opposition to the project. Football fans are beginning to realise that they have the ability to make progressive change and create an environment fit for heroes and not for the haters.

We have had enough of greed; we have had enough of racism. When racists defiled the Marcus Rashford mural in Manchester, football fans from across England helped to cover up the hatred with exhibitions of the love and respect he deserves.

I hope in some way Heroes of the Terraces inspires and rewards football fans continuing to wage these battles. From small community football clubs like Clapton to the fans of Manchester United outraged enough to get a football match postponed – not by fighting and behaving like hooligans, but like the disenfranchised owners of the club they once were.

For every fan booing players taking the knee in English games, there were a dozen other fans willing to drown them out.  Because through football and our new heroes – men and women with compassion and social consciences – we drive a change in wider society.

Football grounds are no longer the dumping grounds for thugs and yobs. They are now a valuable social hub almost in spite of the faceless owners that now dominate the game.

Football clubs opened their kitchens to feed people during lockdown. Everton fans demonstrated their appreciation of the actions of an opposition footballer with love. In Motherwell, the local club stepped in with warm meals for children when the schools were closed and this season are offering free season tickets to the jobless.

Football fans around the country donate to and collect for foodbanks on a regular basis and even support campaigns on the issues of depression and period poverty.

 If we, the fans, cannot own the clubs, then we must and will own the environment.  We have our heroes. We have our Dixie Dean, who wouldn’t salute for Hitler memories, and more recently, the England fans chanting “you’re just a bunch of racist wankers” to the far right in Bulgaria in October 2019.

Things appear bad and racist incidents are often amplified (perhaps rightly so), but I sincerely believe we are heading in the right direction.

Nobody took the knee for Vince Hilaire, Paul Canoville and the literally thousands of other Black footballers whose working and sporting lives were badly impacted by the racist abuse they received.

We have so much more to win than we have to lose in reminding ourselves that football is our game and belongs to all of us. Remind yourselves and tell others. A change is gonna come. It remains the beautiful game.


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