The Singapore striker deserves the benefit of the doubt after shouldering so much abuse, argues Neil Humphreys.
Having read some of the vitriolic comments surrounding Sahil Suhaimi, it’s hard not to conclude that the Singapore Under-23 striker broke into supporters’ homes and peed on their children’s beds.
The mercurial 22-year-old mockingly raised his finger to his lips to “silence” his critics after scoring Singapore’s third in their 3-1 win over Cambodia. He hadn’t slept with anyone’s sister.
There’s a need to breathe here, to maybe count to 10 and start again.
Sahil’s exuberant, and perhaps a tad excessive, goal celebrations said a little about him and his state of mind in that euphoric moment. But the poisonous reactions said a lot more about us.
There has always been a rather hypocritical relationship between footballers and fans. No matter how often they are labeled sinners from the screaming uncle in Row B, players are expected to respond as saints, to rise above the fray, to be the better man, to diffuse the situation and say nothing.
Exceptions abound, of course. In the 1971-72 season, Derby fans abused Arsenal striker Charlie George throughout a fiery Baseball Ground contest. The unpredictable forward listened as his gender and sexuality were challenged.
He was also accused of wearing women’s underwear, which seemed to really bother him. So George scored twice and ran the length of the field to give the braying Derby crowd the middle finger.
He almost caused a riot. He was savaged in the papers the following morning.
David Beckham did likewise at Euro 2000 in Holland. After England’s 3-2 defeat against Portugal, he flipped the finger at Three Lions supporters.
He was also vilified, until it was revealed what the fans had actually said about his wife and son, spitting out disgusting, abhorrent comments about rape and death.
The most famous example of course involved Eric Cantona and his flying kick at Crystal Palace. His violent reaction was unforgivable, but then so was the racist abuse he endured as he headed towards the touchline.
So Sahil’s response was timid by comparison, as was the criticism that had filtered down the Jalan Besar stands after the young striker went through his first two matches at the SEA Games – and most of the third – without scoring.
His hand signal was mostly in keeping with the earlier criticism - benign, reasonable and anything but nasty.
And yet the reaction to his finger-to-lips gesture has been less restrained, practically foaming at the mouth on Facebook and other outraged social media platforms, highlighting once again how the relationship between footballer and fan has undoubtedly changed in the last couple of decades.
Call it the English Premier League social divide added to a splash of online media outrage and a soupcon of angst from keyboard warriors. It can make for a combustible mix.
Put simply, EPL footballers went from earning the decent salaries of an accountant to the outlandish sacks of cash reserved for the CEOs of the world’s largest multi-national companies.
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One of the oldest, strongest umbilical cords in world sport was severed. Footballers no longer identified with the man on the street, leaving behind a slighted supporter peering up at a distant, aloof VIP earning the average annual wage every week.
So expectations changed. Demands increased. Patience was no longer a virtue, but a quaint concept that belonged to a bygone era of maximum wages and players travelling to the games on buses.
Those exorbitant salaries had to be earned. The pampered superstar had better deliver every week, in every game, in every minute, or there will be hell to pay. Footballers in major leagues have spoken at length of the growing aggression and intolerance of any perceived shortcomings on the pitch from restless folks in the stands.
And it’s a global trend that has reached Singapore.
The island’s dwindling band of professional footballers do not earn the inflated salaries that provoke such envy and resentment, but they remain at the mercy of the instant gratification, instant condemnation culture spawned by the modern game and social media.
Players go from heroes to villains and back again in the time it takes to type 140 characters. A two-game goal drought in the SEA Games constitutes a crisis. A spontaneous hand signal to the fans is the end of the world as we know it.
Reasoned debate belongs to yesterday’s men. Today’s pampered, preening peacocks deserve all that’s coming to them.
What should be a grey area has become alarmingly black and white.
Professional sportspeople will always be tried in the court of public opinion, but the punishment should at least fit the crime.
Sahil’s gesture was unfortunate. But a little impudence as the relief of finally scoring surged through every nerve and sinew can surely be forgiven.
He had just killed off Cambodia in a critical game for his country. He hadn’t killed anyone.
Main image: Stefanus Ian/FourFourTwo