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Freedom of The Pitch

 Posted by on May 26, 2013 at 6:16 pm  Blogs/Media
May 262013
Millwall fans clash amongst themselves during the game 1830382 300x199 Freedom of The Pitch

Millwall supporters acting out against police during their recent F.A. Cup loss to Wigan.


[Author's Note: I wanted to share this earlier piece that had in written last month after having watched yesterday's UEFA Champions League Final. It was refreshing in a season that has had so many negative things come out of it to see two clubs and two groups of supporters play the game the right way, even if every call does not go in their direction.]

When I woke up on a Saturday last month, I was more excited for a weekend of football than I had been in quite some time. Ajax-PSV, two FA Cup semi-final matches, and a full slate of MLS games were on my docket. While I remember watching the Dutch league match, the weekend was spoiled for me by the actions of the spectators in the Millwall match and at F.C. Dallas Defender George John having a beer bottle tossed at him by a fan. This has been a rather ugly soccer season with fans tossing coins at players, heightened racism throughout Europe, and fan violence increasing. While I truly enjoy the free spirit behavior of soccer, the reactions of those in around the pitch sometimes leaves me disappointed.

While some may people may see soccer as just a game, a field with 22 people, a ball, two metal arches, and a man in a ridiculously colored shirt, there is more to it than that. While the point of the game is to score a goal and garner your team a victory, how you choose to do it requires imagination and thought. Thought requires some level of intellect and intellect is not just confined to a pitch. One of the reasons why I started this website is that I wanted to not only cover the intricacies of the game, but to follow the threadlines that sew together our world. On a field where you can see such amazing sights of cooperation like North Koreans on the same side as South Koreans, Muslims playing with Jews and Christians, you see fans throwing bananas at players or coaches and players giving fascist salutes. The rationale of all these reactions seem to stem from a simple concept: that all people at a game feel the freedom that the pitch exudes.

A couple of weeks ago there was a discussion on the BBC Program, The World Football Phone In, about the actions of two teams strongest supporters, commonly refered to as Ultras. While I cannot remember the names of the particular teams, the debate brought up a fascinating point about the actions of those on and around the pitch and whether or not the actions of fans can be productive or counter-productive. To me the question is too layered to answer in such a simple way. What are the goals of each supporter? What are they looking to achieve when they yell at a player, referee, or another fan?

To answer such questions it would seem that there are three types of fervor that are exhibited on and around the pitch: political, race/religion, and trolls. While general violence could just be a fan voicing their opinion against a player or a particular decision, for the purpose of this article I am generally referring to the actions of fans and players over-reacting to situations by using violence. While I have never seen a fight at a soccer game, or at any game for that matter, I have seen fans act like buffoons of the highest order. When you see fans tossing drinks at spectators, cursing like sailors in front of children, or instigating players to the point where they jump into the stands you wonder what is the point of watching sports. This type of behavior is not limited to soccer: if you want to see fans acting like tools, please check out the Palace Brawl between the NBA’s Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons. While the players have no right to jump into the stands to fight the fans, the fans should never instigate a situation to that point.

I use the term trolls to describe these sort of people because their behavior reminds me so much of those who choose to comment virulent junk on the internet. Because they are relatively anonymous these are people that feel they can say whatever they want with no consequences. Narcissists like this have no place at a game and their behavior should be shamed by other fans. Unlike the other two groups, these types of people do not believe in anything other than pissing off others for their own benefit. These are the types of people that have forced stadium officials to make beers unavailable after the 65th minute, and allow shows like ESPN’s First Take to exist. They are not fans, they are trolls.

While it would be easy to classify all extreme behavior at a football match as trolling, it is not that simple. While protests and fan violence is the end result of much of the passion exhibited on the pitch, for many people there is a point to their violence. Although this may not be the case in the United States, and is certainly lessening in England in recent years, many people on and around the pitch use the stage to express their political views. For those living in countries where freedom of expression is met with prison and sometimes death, the pitch may be the only place where a player or a fan can express themselves. Sometimes it can be with signs or supporters singing. Other times it is can be a far more subtle protest. For example, in June 2009, members of the Iran national football team chose to wear green arm bands in support of Mr. Hossein Mousaivi, the opposition leader in Iran’s general elections. While this did not sway the election for Mr. Mousaivi, it shows that even in the most repressive regimes that people will use any avenue to voice their opinions. I am wholly confident that the reason why the Taliban chose to use soccer goals as public execution sites. There is power in the parks.

Lets also dispel another myth: the players are shielded from the problems in their countries or the countries of their club. The play on a football pitch is reflection of the players each side and their experiences in life. As opposed to many other sports, things like a fancy field, regulations, or metal goalposts only accentuate the game. They do not make it soccer. The poorest child in Sao Paulo, Jakarta, Riyadh, or Tehran can make a ball out of duct tape, find a random alleyway, and some trashcans and a few friends and call it soccer. It is this drive to play the game and get out of poverty that creates some of the best players. Their ingenuity on the pitch dazzles fans who can claim this player as their own and sparks fear of those in power.

Unfortunately, not every instance of political opposition in the stands is positive. As with the other types of fan violence, things can get out of hand. As evidenced by the 2012 Port Said Massacre, which resulted in the death 74 fans of the Al-Ahly football team, football can take the problems that exist outside of the pitch and pour gasoline on them. When you have two groups of fans like the supporters of Al-Ahly and Al Masry who do not like each other and you add civil war, things can get bloody. Football is not the reason why there is a civil war going on in Egypt, but it is certainly part of the problem. In countries like Egypt, where freedom of expression was essentially banned for sixty years, people saw the soccer pitch as their only outlet.

Egypt’s plight is not the only place in the world where fans have gone to a game and been killed (those the remember the Hillsborough incident still hate former British Prime Minister with a passion,) it is one of the strongest reminders of how things can escalate from a simple disagreement to violence. Because of the actions of both fans and a corrupt police force, 74 fans were killed and 52 other people will be executed this year for their roles in the Massacre. Perhaps in some instances it would be good for people to not go to a game, if they do not feel that they can handle being in a crowd with people who have different political beliefs. Or perhaps people can find other methods to explaining their points of views. Football has long been a place where opposing viewpoints could play a game, be respectful of one another, and shake hands at the end. It is a game of emotions, but the best players are able to focus their emotions for positive purposes, such as scoring a goal or achieving victory.

While the pitch can bring out a person’s inner troll and their political beliefs, racism seems to be the most public problem. It does not seem like I can go a week without watching a player use a homophobic remark, seeing a fan throw a banana, or listening to a coach’s fascist beliefs. While this topic may overlap with the previous two infringements of the freedom of the pitch, it deserves special mention because of how egregious the problem is. Acting like a jerk to everyone is one thing, but when a person denigrates another or a group of people because of things that they cannot change it becomes personal. Much of these perceived slights come from people who are unhappy and uneducated on the differences of others.

I feel the same way about racists as I do about trolls: learn how to control yourself at the game or go home. Limiting the amount of alcohol available at games may make people act a little more civil, but it is not going to change the way people feel. I would like to note to all of those out there who have these beliefs to take a look at their team. Their team is made up of people who are different ethnicities, religions, and definitely sexual orientation and yet they are able to work with one another. In the Premier League you see players who are Jewish playing with Muslims and Christians, Serbs playing with Croats and Bosnians, and of course Irish Catholics playing with Irish Protestants. In South Korea, North Korean international Jong Tae Se plays for Suwong Samsung Bluewings.

While I have empathy with players who say things in the heat of the moment that they would not normally believe, I do not buy anyone’s claims that they do not understand the meanings of the words they use. It is ludicrous for someone like Luis Suarez to say that he did not know that the “N” word is offensive to black people. All Football players go through cultural sensitivity classes before they enter into a new country. Because of the amount of money being spent in professional football, to their clubs and agents the players are brands. If the clubs are not doing this, then the agent needs to be fired and the club should be fined. We no longer live in a time where a person can justify racist remarks because they did not understand. We have the internet. Look it up. Racism should not be accepted at any levels of the game and those who are wearing suits should be held as responsible as those on the pitch and those in the stands.

While football can be a great place to air one’s grievances and have some freedom to express themselves, it should be done with a caution. Respecting those around you, even if you disagree with them or their life choices is important to truly enjoy the game. Every Saturday and Sunday we see players who are black, white, Brazilians, Argentinians, Muslims, Jews, and even homosexuals figuring out how to work together to achieve a goal. They cede certain parts of their game and their beliefs to work together to achieve a goal. Soccer is much like society, on the pitch we have the ability to say and do what we want. However, if we do not learn to deal with others we will be dribbling by ourselves.

Sean Maslin

Writer for Global Football Today, Soccerly, D.C. Soccer, Soccer Without Limits, and Blatter's Blotter. Lifetime D.C. United, Newcastle United, and Washington Warthog fan. Can be reached at @SeanMaslin on twitter or at

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