x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Facing the wrath of the unenlightened fans

After a Spanish player was threatened at his home by supporters, Will Batchelor looks at when fanatical behaviour took a sinister turn.

Wayne Rooney was threatened by fans of Manchester United in 2010 when he publicly flirted with a move to Manchester City. Michael Regan / Getty Images
Wayne Rooney was threatened by fans of Manchester United in 2010 when he publicly flirted with a move to Manchester City. Michael Regan / Getty Images

A disturbing story emerged from Spain this week, when supporters of the Second Division club Racing de Santander abused one of their own players.

I know what you are thinking: "So what is new? Surely it is par for the course in the modern game."

Well, yes and no. In this case the abuse was physical as well as verbal, which is clearly unacceptable. Secondly, and far more worryingly, it occurred in the player's own home.

Hameur Bouazza, a journeyman winger, was tailed by a car load of Santander fans when driving home from the stadium.

The hooded thugs, their faces masked with Racing scarves, followed him into his own garage and shoved him in the chest, hurling racial abuse as well as threatening to do him further harm if the team's result do not improve.

Santander were relegated from the Spanish First Division last season, and Bouazza is one of many players suspected by fans of not pulling his weight.

Having not seen him play for Racing, I cannot judge whether that is a fair criticism, but I do remember him as a decent and committed player for my own team, Birmingham City.

Bouazza was unharmed but understandably upset following the fracas, which one imagines will only make it easier for him to join the exodus of players from the cash-strapped club.

But while the details of this ugly spat are shocking, they also feel worryingly familiar.

The figures are perhaps too low to claim it as a "trend" but there does seem to have been a spate of overzealous fans infringing upon their own players' domestic lives in recent years.

Sometimes these invasions of privacy are well intentioned. When the Brazilian midfielder Alex de Souza was sold, supposedly against his will, by the Turkish club Fenerbahce in October, fans burnt their shirts and flags outside his home. This was an act of solidarity rather than intimidation.

Likewise, when Kaka was reportedly considering a move to Manchester City in 2009, AC Milan fans mustered outside his home to plead with him to stay (which he duly did, for all of six months).

Such "please stay!" protests, however, can easily take on more sinister tones.

During Wayne Rooney's public flirtation with Manchester City in 2010, around 40 hooded and masked Manchester United supporters mustered outside the gates of his mansion, demanding he come out to explain his reason for wishing to leave Old Trafford.

A banner reading "Join City and Die" was unfurled - a classy touch, considering his wife and one-year-old son were also at home.

But at least Coleen and Kai Rooney were behind bricks and mortar. In March, the Wolverhampton Wanderers midfielder Jamie O'Hara was surrounded and jostled by Wolves fans, angry at his perceived lack of effort, while carrying his nine-month-old son.

Disgusting behaviour, but still preferable to that meted out by Russian and Italian thugs to their own players.

In October, Dynamo Moscow fans fired paintballs at their own players during training, in protest at their poor start to the season. And in 2006, Inter Milan players were ambushed and beaten up by their own supporters at the airport following a victory over Ascoli.

Yes, you read that right: a victory! The fans were incensed that their players had the gall to beat minnows like Ascoli after losing to Villarreal in the Champions League.

Did such confrontations occur in football's good old bad old days, when players lived outside the bubble and would catch the bus home with supporters, their boots wrapped in newspaper?

Get real. Of course they did! If a player had had a stinker, do you really imagine a bus load of football fans would have politely held their tongues?

The difference, perhaps, is that one tends to keep the discussion civil if you know you will probably be sitting together on the same bus next week.

The cultural separation of modern players from fans invites contempt and misunderstanding on both sides.

A gilded cage is still a cage, which some people take as licence to tease the animals within.

The other element that has changed is the commercialisation of loyalty. When ticket prices were modest, so too were the expectations of most fans.

Modern pricing structures, however, are a taxation of loyalty. When people are taxed, we expect something in return. If it is not delivered, some will vent their fury in the wrong way.

Bouazza has made the right noises, publicly, about the invasion of his privacy.

"I hope it is an isolated incident," he said.

Well I hope so too. But, on current evidence, that seems about as likely as Bouazza turning out in the Racing green after January.

sports@thenational.ae

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