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I feel sorry for Mario Balotelli. I’m sure he’ll take that as a comfort; knowing he’s not the only one asking “why always Mario?” That is not to say I think he’s drifted through life blameless and immaculate: not at all. I’ve only seen him in the flesh once, when Manchester City played Arsenal. He had a terrible game and got sent off for what even I, sitting in row Z at the other end of the ground, could see was a stupid and dangerous tackle.
But I’ve had a soft spot for Balotelli ever since someone pointed out he looks like a baby dinosaur. Without wishing to infantilise him, he’s like the boy in school who can’t help getting in trouble even when he’s trying to be good. Ballotelli’s current situation is the perfect example. Last week, the player posted an image on Instagram, showing Nintendo character Super Mario (from whom the footballer takes his nickname, or at least would like to).
“Don’t be racist!”, it read (Yay!)
“Be like Mario” (LOL!)
“He’s an Italian plumber” (indeed he is)
“created by Japanese people” (correct)
“who speaks English” (sort of)
“and looks like a Mexican” (I suppose he does. A bit.)
“…jumps like a black man” (hmmm)
“and grabs coins like a Jew” (oh)
Long story short: people suggested that this might be a bit racist towards black and Jewish people, Balotelli responded that his mum is Jewish. Eventually, he took the post down and apologised. But by then it was too late. The Football Association announced over the weekend that the striker would face an investigation for using insulting and improper language with “reference to ethnic origin and/or colour and/or race and/or nationality and/or religion or belief”.
For what it’s worth, I don’t believe for a moment that Balotelli meant to insult anyone with his Instagram post. I think he entirely sincerely posted the meme seeing it as an anti-racist message. The problem for poor Mario was that his ill-judged but innocent Instagram came while the football world was actually paying attention to anti-semitism, as Wigan chairman Dave Whelan spouted a series of inappropriate race-related comments (Jews, money, you know, that stuff) after hiring former Cardiff manager Malky Mackay, who himself had run into controversy over dubious texts (Jews, money, on and on it goes).
Whelan stylishly compounded the issue with a “clarifying” interview in the Jewish Telegraph, where he spun the ”some of my best friends are…” line, saying there must be “a dozen” Jews with apartments near his residence in Majorca, and “so many Jewish people go to Barbados at Christmas. That’s when I go. I see a lot of them in the Lone Star, in restaurants. I play golf with a few of them.”
In the same interview, Whelan told how when he was younger, people called the only Chinese restaurant in Wigan “the Chingalings”, and absolutely nobody had minded (though one doubts anyone asked the Chinese people of Wigan).
Whelan now also faces charges of misconduct from the FA. I’m not about to suggest that the FA has no right to investigate Whelan, or anyone involved in professional football in England. Associations can have their own rules and standards. But it would be sad if, in football’s newfound determination to deal with discrimination, innocents such as Balotelli got caught in the dragnet.
The interesting question is whether, in combating racism, one confronts the words used, the stereotypes invoked, the intent behind them, or all three at once. Is it possible to disentangle the three?
Nowhere is this more clearly illustrated than the debate about whether Tottenham Hotspur fans should be able to chant “yids” or not. Short explanation: some Spurs fans are Jewish, many identify as the “yid army”. Some people — mostly not Spurs fans — feel that Spurs fans chanting “yids” legitimises anti-semitic chanting by fans of other teams. Spurs fans say it’s their chant and their word and they are using it positively. Unpick that one, sports fans.
Words in and of themselves are neutral entities. Does saying the word “yid” — in and of itself — make me more or less anti-semitic? No. But the creation of a taboo can elevate a word, bringing a certain thrill to its use. In a society where, more or less, we have decided bigotry is a bad thing (which is not to suggest a society where bigotry is no longer a problem), the use of words and phrases associated with bigotry can take on a thrill of its own, as much for the well intentioned as for the malevolent. The bad taste joke, the inappropriate interjection, the drunken football chant using the words you might not be supposed to use, are the shared cigarette behind the school bike shed; the shared, line-crossing moments that so often bond people.
The joy for most Unilad Bantalopes lies in that shared bond. For the person who created the meme which ill-feted Mario Balotelli shared (very much from the Bantasauraus school), one could simultaneously attempt to be anti-racist and use racial stereotypes. Human beings are complicated like that. And that’s why a zero-tolerance approach to words and meanings is unlikely to work on us.
It was a few minutes before kick off last Sunday when when the banners went up. To be fair they were more painted bed sheets than banners. One read “£62 and we’re still here.” Another said “£62!! Where will it stop?” The tone of the first was defiant, the second quietly despairing. Either way, as protests go, they were well mannered.
There had been much debate about the price of away tickets for Manchester City fans at Arsenal. Premiership clubs offer a bizarre pricing hierarchy whereby fans of the most successful clubs (invariably the richest clubs) are charged most for tickets. This might have a degree of fairness if, say, Manchester City’s owner Sheikh Mansour paid for the fans’ tickets, but he doesn’t. The reality is that a Manchester City fan is just as likely to be struggling financially as a Reading or QPR fan.
Even by premiership standards £62 for an away ticket is ludicrously high. Some fans boycotted the match, and 900 of the 3,000-strong allocation were reportedly returned to Arsenal. Others (me included) decided to go, enjoy the match (City’s first league victory at Arsenal in 37 years as it happens) and sing their heart out about the injustice of it all.
City supporter Richard Taylor, an estate agent from Stalybridge, had painted the banner the previous night in Manchester. He says he was impressed with the result. “It’s a lot neater than I thought it would be. Ticket prices are a big problem, especially for away supporters. I thought the banner might get the issue a bit of publicity.”
“We’d only had it up a few seconds when a steward came over. He said we’ve been instructed by our bosses to take it away. Actually, he said ‘I agree with what you are saying’, but I’ve been told I’ve got to take it away’. I told him he had no right to take it off me, that it was peaceful protest, and there’s nothing offensive about the banner. He said ‘Don’t make my work harder for me because then I’ll have to get the police involved’.”
Reinforcements soon arrived in the form of the Metropolitan police. A couple of officers hurdled empty chairs Sweeney-style to reach the refuseniks. “They came over quite aggressive actually, jumping over the seats to get to us. Two came over to me and two stood at the end of the aisle. They demanded Taylor hand over the banner or be arrested. “Well I wasn’t going to walk out and miss the match. I’d paid £62 for it, so I gave the banner to them. We tried to argue about it, but it wasn’t worth getting kicked out when we’d paid £62.”
Did they say what they would arrest him for? “No.”
By now the whole away end were singing “£62 and we’re not here” [an adaptation of an old Manchester City chant].
This is by no means the first time peaceful protest and freedom of expression have been issues at football matches. In 2010, Manchester United fans said that they had been over-policed after unfurling banners protesting against the club-owners, the Glazer family. In 2008 anti-censorship campaigners (including Index on Censorship) complained after there was talk of banning Glasgow Rangers supporters from taunting Celtic fans with a song about the Irish famine (“’From Ireland they came, brought us nothing but trouble and shame’.) In 1998, Swindon Town chairman Rikki Hunt threeatened to ban fans for life after they had staged a sit-down protest following a 4-1 defeat and chanted for the sacking of their manager.
I asked Arsenal if they felt a football match at the Emirates was an inappropriate venue for protest and whether they did not believe in freedom of expression. The spokesman laughed and pointed out Arsenal’s admirable record on inclusion (they were the first club to be awarded anti-racism campaign Kick It Out‘s Advanced level of the Quality standard). “Of course we encourage freedom of expression, but in this case the banner was just too big. It impeded the views of supporters and was a health and safety issue.” What would Taylor have been arrested for? “Breach of the peace.”
So I mentioned another incident that happened just after Taylor’s banner was removed — police approached a man in the crowd wearing a felt-tip scribbled T-shirt. This time there were around a dozen officers.The police asked him to remove his T-shirt, and eventually he did.
I asked Arsenal if this was also a visibility/health and safety issue. The club said it had no record of this encounter, but asked what the fan had written on his T-shirt. “You can stick your £62 up your arse,” I said.
“Ah well, that’s just offensive isn’t it?” said the spokesman. “It’s nothing to do with the views expressed, just the language.”
At the end of the match, Richard Taylor retrieved his banner — the police had left it with the stewards for him to reclaim. Although he was “disgusted” by the club’s reaction to the banner, he believes it has only served to publicise his cause.
He mentioned model football clubs such as Borussia Dortmund, where he travelled to early in the season in the Champions League. “Our tickets were £24, and we had free travel on the day” For Taylor his campaign has now become two-pronged — not only is he fighting football clubs that charge excessive prices, he is also campaigning against those whom he believes are prohibiting the democratic right to peaceful protest.