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Why tribalism is no excuse for the abuse that fans direct towards players

(Image credit: PA)

Unfortunately, when Troy Deeney revealed the scale of abuse he’s suffered over the past week, most would barely have blinked. Because why would they? Why, when a player tells the world that harm has been wished on his infant child, would anyone’s expression even change anymore?

It should, of course. News of something like that should be enough to make the world recoil in collective revulsion, but while familiarity hasn’t quite bred indifference, that kind of animosity is now common enough to barely provoke a sad sigh.

Troy Deeney’s son apparently has a condition affecting his respiratory system. When Project Restart was announced, he explained why he wouldn’t immediately be returning to training. 

“I don't want to come home and put him in more danger," the Watford striker said. “You've got to drive in in your own kit, you can't have showers, then drive back in the same dirty kit you've got.

“If I'm putting my clothing in with my son's or my missus' it's more likely to be in the house."

The response to which, from any reasonable person, is surely one of understanding. It makes sense. No matter how much somebody earns or how privileged a position that person inhabits, it is a thoroughly understandable reaction. The health of a child would always instruct a parent’s decision-making process. In this instance, seemingly, it was especially important that it should do so. 

And yet here we are, having to explain the most basic concepts to that ugly minority – that group who are always there, always shaking their fists, always posting abuse underneath tweets or Instagram posts. 

The question is why? Not ‘why do those people exist?’, but why do these energies so often flow through football. On the basis that these poisoned pen messages aren’t always authored by genuine sociopaths – that’s a lie we just tell ourselves for comfort – there must be something uniquely welcoming about football. Something which makes superficially generic people reach inside themselves for the ugliest parts of their personality. 

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And it’s not tribalism. That’s another cop-out. Troy Deeney is not playing football at the moment. Leagues and matches and rivalries don’t actually exist. Consequently, the excuse which is often deployed – the insistence that fans must always be excused their response towards somebody or something not aligned with their team’s interest – has even less merit than usual.

Think of the circumstances in the world. Hundreds continue to die every day. Lockdown restrictions apply across the globe. Almost everyone is connected to somebody who has or continues to be adversely affected. Within that context, what is the excuse for such a lack of humanity and why, as always, does football provide a forum in which some feel emboldened to behave as they do.

There isn’t an answer to that question. It’s always assumed that it belongs to the same behavioural family that sees people get upset about refereeing decisions or believe in absurd, illogical bias, but it doesn’t.

A few weeks ago, the former Arsenal forward Ian Wright shared details of shocking – truly eye-watering - racist abuse that he’d suffered at the hands of teenager. Why did that happen? First and foremost because his abuser was a racist – of course – but also, seemingly, because there’s evidently something about the sport which legitimises the targeting of anyone within its circle.

How about the Birmingham City supporter who invaded the pitch and thumped Jack Grealish? Or the keyboard warriors who insult football journalists who report what they don’t want to hear? Or the non-league player who mocked Harry Arter over the death of his daughter?

True, people carry stones for all sorts of reasons and the country is responsible for that, not football, but they only feel able to throw their stones in certain directions and that is something for which the environment has a responsibility.

These are extreme examples consisting of the most abhorrent behaviour. But that tone of reaction is everywhere. For a lot of people, apparently, once they pass through the door marked ‘football’, they feel able to shout, scream, abuse and bully, and just muttering about the sport being competitive and fans being prone to tribalism doesn’t come close to explaining why that should be.

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