By Matt Styles
When Mike Dean sent Jan Bednarek for an early shower on Tuesday night many were left scratching their heads, but it was then when the veteran referee curiously decided to send off Tomáš Souček four days later that fans were not only confused, but actively outraged by the injustice of the decision.
Dean, long known for his eccentricities and questionable calls, undoubtedly got it wrong. Widely regarded as a ‘celebrity referee’, his inadequacies and egotistical nature excite a sense of annoyance in most football fans, not least for those who own Bednarek and Souček in their Fantasy team, but because it throws into question the quality of officiating at the highest level.
At the full time whistle most of us will switch off the tele, perhaps convey our exasperation with friends in the group chat, then carry on with our day. A small minority, however, consciously decide to take time out of their day to issue death threats and spout vile abuse online. Not only is this behaviour is a sad indictment on humanity, but also the highly venomous and toxic nature of online footballing discourse today, as enabled by social media platforms.
During lockdown we have seen football assume a greater significance in our lives, though abuse has transferred from the stands to the virtual sphere, teeming with keyboard warriors who hide behind screens and don’t feel sufficiently deterred when coming to press the send button.
When Mike Dean and his family received these threats it was saddening because this sort of thing is no longer shocking or surprising. Death threats and abuse have become so commonplace for those who are in the public eye.
Crucially it raises a broader question of how football fosters such a culture of hatred; beyond racism and sexist abuse there is clearly a general anger in our society that players, officials and pundits must bear the brunt of. Sociologist Dr Jamie Cleand argues that it gives these abusers “a high level of capital in their everyday life. This gives them a sense of worthiness. They want someone to bite. They feel alive.”
Hooliganism proves that the most disaffected and disenfranchised in society will latch onto football as a source of meaning; a lifestyle choice perpetuated by a collective ideology predicated on anger, a desire for conflict and a perverse anarchic spirit. In a secular age it is the arena that enables partisan devotion and the release of raw, latent emotions from everyday life.
Football is a valid form of escapism, for many like myself it is the best there is, though it should not be a matter of life and death. Yet, media outlets strive to raise it to that level, attempting to ensnare us all in illusion by creating a non-stop dizzying landscape that assumes a level of gravitas beyond what it really is.
Most disturbing is how casual it has become to unpick, at length, the errors of people who are ultimately just doing their job. An accountant, a binman or a newsagent would never be subject to such treatment.
In light of these events it is vital that all fans take a step back and keep a sense of perspective. Football is at its best when you don’t take it too seriously, when you are acutely self-conscious of the fact you are buying into something illusory and can recognise that, while unjust, Souček getting shown a rectangular bit of card doesn’t represent the end of days.
Football is ultimately a game and should be treated as such. Otherwise something so partisan, where the steaks are inexorably high and of all-consuming importance, will bring out the worst in us if we let it.
These cowardly online abusers evidently have no healthy perspective, but instead are so invested that they lose any sense of the humanity behind what the football. They project their darkest thoughts onto something that feels suitably far-removed, forgetting the emotional toll that a death threat will have on a person. Indeed, chair of the Referees’ Association Paul Field now fears a referee’s life may be lost if this continues. We shouldn’t wait for that to happen before action is taken.
The shameful reality is that it is far too easy for individuals to be guarded by anonymity when abusing players, pundits and officials on platforms where the discourse is so rancorous. There is a desperate need to shock, provoke a reaction, push things as far as they can knowing that consequences are unlikely so long as they remain faceless and nameless.
Whatever happened to a world where there are consequences to actions? Even if it is a tiny minority of pre-pubescent teenagers hiding behind the anonymity of a ‘Football Twitter’ account, more needs to be done to not only prevent but punish such foul behaviour.
There is a moral responsibility for this social media sites who, as Abi Curran argued this week, ‘have a duty of care towards sporting professionals where the targeted abuse is so saturated towards them, and they must be held accountable.’
The endurance of taking the knee, even if it many feel has become an empty gesture, shows the continued need for these discussions; for promoting awareness of the hatred that plagues our society and how it can manifest itself in dark and twisted ways.
Since sadly football is the convenient vehicle through which the thoughts of these individuals are able to thrive and be expressed, institutionally it needs to rise to the challenge and demonstrate, more convincingly, how it can start becoming part of the solution.
Instead of routine public statements and former pros trying to ‘out-condemn’ one another, actions will always speak louder than words. The attention of ruling bodies must turn to how, practically, working with the government and social media sites, new legislature and positive steps can be taken to truly eliminate this social evil.
“Boring now”, reflected Lauren James after being the latest to suffer racist abuse, “too much talk around these days, and nothing ever gets done. Usual story.” The vast majority share this sense of weariness and want football, once and for all, to be liberated from this plague that has tacitly overhung it in the digital era.
We want to see not just direct action from companies such as Twitter but a clear willingness to help stamp out this problem through more rigorous online policing and severer punishments. If not, the same depressing cycles will keep on repeating themselves. The time has come to revise the ‘usual story.’
Image: Brian Minkoff via Wikimedia Commons