x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Why the Beautiful Game turns into a blame game when violence strikes

A nasty foul, a poor decision by the referee, a provocative goal celebration; frankly, we'll blame the guy in the burger van before pointing the finger at ourselves.

The stadium at Port Said, Egypt, witnessed a football game disintegrate into a riot that killed 74 people. But who is to blame for the tragedy?
The stadium at Port Said, Egypt, witnessed a football game disintegrate into a riot that killed 74 people. But who is to blame for the tragedy?

Conspiracy theories travel fast these days. The body count was still rising when the blogosphere erupted with sinister explanations for the carnage in Port Said in Egypt.

A popular opinion, eagerly seized upon by the worldwide media, was that conservative forces within the Egyptian establishment had orchestrated the attack on Al Ahly fans. This was a punishment, apparently, for their prominent role in anti-Mubarak protests.

That would be convenient, wouldn't it? Shadowy cabals are not a pleasant thought, but they are far easier to stomach than the truth. We football fans have always been quick to seek a scapegoat for the Beautiful Game's ugly streak.

In England, we used to blame hooliganism on Far Right organisations infiltrating the terraces. It was a nice theory, providing you ignored the fact that one of the country's most active gangs – Birmingham City's "Zulus" – was multiracial.

In the 1980s, we decided it was caused by social deprivation: furious youths with nothing to lose but their anger. This was plausible in the de-industrialising north but made no sense in the booming south-east, where hooliganism was equally rife. The London-based antagonists who goaded northern fans by waving wads of cash did not appear to feel disenfranchised.

Even the "youth" tag is misleading. Those arrested in England after football-related violence are frequently aged in their 20s, 30s or even 40s.

So what else can we blame? Sectarian hatred provides a convenient excuse for some hooligans, notably those in Glasgow, while certain Italian troublemakers muster beneath broadly political banners.

I guess firing a flare into a sea of men, women and children seems nobler if you claim to be fighting Fascism, or defending your God. And, if all else fails, the police make a great whipping boy. They provoked us with heavy-handedness, we cry. Unless of course they were not heavy-handed, in which case we say they failed to nip trouble in the bud.

A nasty foul, a poor decision by the referee, a provocative goal celebration; frankly, we'll blame the guy in the burger van before pointing the finger at ourselves.

The truth we seek to avoid is that violence can feel like terrific fun, when it is only at the ritualistic, posturing stage.

At football, a nine-stone weakling can stand with arms aloft, beckoning a thousand men to "come and have a go if you think you're hard enough", without fear of the ridicule that would surely follow if he tried the same stunt anywhere else.

At football, a mild-mannered office clerk will sing about kicking in his opponents' heads, then forego a post-match drink because he is afraid of his wife.

Not only would such behaviour be frowned upon in other sporting arenas, it would be mocked. The idea of standing up at Wimbledon and offering to fight anyone who supports Nadal over Djokovic is risible.

Yes, tennis crowds tend to be posher and more female, but football-style aggression would seem equally alien at darts, snooker, rugby or cricket, all of which draw fans from every social background.

In football, however, showing naked aggression is either tolerated, encouraged or even secretly admired.

I go to football matches with a group of old school friends, all respectable professionals with wives and children. They would not dream of having a fight, and tend to refrain from aggressive chanting.

Yet they will still send a breathless text if they witnessed a "kick off" at the train station, or nudge me excitedly when a notorious hooligan wanders past: "There goes so-and-so," they will whisper. "He started that thing at Millwall."

I would like to tell you that I shun such tawdry gossip, but I do not. In truth, I want to know. Like most humans, violence both fascinates and appals me, as do its practitioners.

And, like most football fans, I claim to abhor aggression while also enjoying the cauldron-like atmosphere it creates. When the fixture list comes out, the first date to be circled is the derby match and the bitterest foes. Why? Not because the football will be better (it almost certainly won't) but because the tension will be turned up to 11.

When that tension spills over into actual violence, even death, respectable fans wring our hands and express regret that some hotheads crossed the line between ritual and realty. But we are all complicit in nurturing the febrile atmosphere in which such mistakes are made.

With at least 74 deaths to comprehend, it is easy to see why Egyptians prefer the comfort of a conspiracy theory.

sports@thenational.ae