PATHETICALLY, my initial response to the awful Bobby Charlton chants was almost one of relief. At least it wasn’t that one. The Munich one. The one sung on terraces throughout the 1980s. The one sung by me.
In my defence, I was a child. I didn’t know what I was singing. The Munich air disaster of 6 February 1958 didn’t yet resonate with a kid from an East London housing estate. Besides, my fellow West Ham United supporters chanted about all sorts of things whenever Manchester United visited Upton Park. Munich was just one of them. So I parroted sickening lyrics that I didn’t understand.
I was a child, a boy among morons.
Those singing at the Etihad Stadium at the weekend were not children. And they were aware of Munich and its profound impact on Charlton. Just as they were aware of the loss of a dignified gentleman, a football king who never lost his common touch. But they gloated about this death anyway, because they were Manchester City and he was Manchester United and this was the latest example of infantile tribalism. Grown men screaming out from silos, because they must.
And Manchester City officials have condemned the “small number of individuals”, because they must, and the English Premier League will presumably take action, because they must, and appalled pundits will demand life bans, because they must, as a whiff of hypocrisy hangs above every outraged tweet and YouTube post.
We can be outraged. We can be appalled. But we cannot be surprised. Not really.
Tribalism is nothing new. It’s the lifeblood of any competitive sport, let alone the most popular sport on the planet, with mouths to feed, hits to reach and viral posts to share. But the evolution of both social media and EPL coverage more generally creates sides at every opportunity. It’s you against me now, blue against red, pundit against pundit. So grab a pitchfork and pick an enemy. There are plenty to choose from.
Football enemies come along like buses now. They come with every social media clip. Gary Neville goes to war with the Glazers! Rio Ferdinand takes on Jamie Carragher! Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink loses it with Jamie Redknapp! It’s Simon Jordan versus Martin O’Neill, Simon Jordan versus Martin Keown, Simon Jordan versus anyone called Martin. The names change, but the enemies are omnipresent. It’s a battle, every day, the puerile language of the school playground writ large, for kicks and clicks on social media.
Tribalism becoming uglier via social media
Just a quick trawl through Facebook or Twitter/X feels like a spoof of Brian trying to convince the People’s Front of Judea how much he really, really hates the Romans in the Life of Brian. Loving your team is not enough. You’ve got to demonstrate an intense hatred for rivals, too, and behave accordingly.
You’re a Manchester City fan? Record yourself singing sick chants about a dead United legend. You’re a Liverpool fan? Tell the world how much you hate David Beckham when his Netflix documentary drops. You’re a Manchester United fan? Say something cynical about Heysel.
It’s all out there, for your reading masochism, confused displays of club loyalty morphing into simplistic criticisms of perceived enemies.
Social media has amplified the game’s traditional tribalism and twisted it into something more binary and certainly uglier. If William Saliba’s handball at Chelsea is either absolutely right or absolutely wrong, with no middle ground recognised in cyberspace, then what chance has Mo Salah got, commenting on the Israel-Hamas war?
The Liverpool forward released a poignant statement, essentially reminding us that, “all lives are sacred and must be protected. The massacres need to stop. Families are being torn apart.” It’s impossible to disagree with Salah on this, right? Well, quite a number have tried in recent days. There are few, if any, guaranteed safe spaces in public discourse anymore. Every post can be challenged. Every benign comment is up for dissection. Nuance is so 1990s. There are only entrenched positions, on other side. So pick one. You’re either with us or against us.
The idiots at the Etihad were with Manchester City and therefore against Manchester United and therefore against Bobby Charlton and therefore they sang stupid songs. Social media didn’t create them. But its existence certainly emboldened them. They filmed themselves, for heaven’s sake.
Social media’s algorithms and its ability to feed into pre-existing prejudices has been documented as a problem that extends beyond football, but the game’s media might also acknowledge its role in pandering to the online tribalism. Punditry is often sold as confrontation. Clips are presented as boxing posters. This pundit takes on that pundit. Danny Murphy slams … Jamie Redknapp fumes … Roy Keane and Micah Richards clash … There is so much slamming, fuming and clashing these days. It sounds exhausting.
It can also make for entertaining TV, sure, but tribalism can exist without a daily drip-feed of slamming, fuming and clashing and lots of angry people online resorting to the bleating rhetoric of Animal Farm. My team: Good. Your team: Bad. And so on.
Loving a team really should be enough. That’s the only yardstick required, either inside a stadium, on a sofa, or online. There’s no need to prove one’s devotion by referencing a rival’s tragedies or supporting debunked conspiracy theories or singing offensive songs about a dead icon.
To my knowledge, Bobby Charlton didn’t hate anyone. He just adored the game. That was enough for him. So it should be more than enough for the rest of us.
There’s no need to prove one’s devotion by referencing a rival’s tragedies or supporting debunked conspiracy theories or singing offensive songs about a dead icon.
Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 28 books.
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