Prejudice, Race and Football: Why we are all Monkeys Now

Behind the liberal veneer, those outbursts against uncouth fans are only a slightly more erudite version of throwing bananas against people you fear and loathe.

Brendan O’Neill, “An Acceptable Hatred,” The Spectator, February 4, 2012

The scene was an ugly one. It was an Under 21 football match between Serbia and England in the Stadion Mladost in the town of Kruševac.  An England victory was registered – at some cost.  Primate calls and chants from the stand made to a black player in England colours, Danny Rose.  Supporters of the Serbian side, ecstatic to see a player sent off who had kicked the football into the crowd in disgust in response to the racial tide.  Flying projectiles directed against the England visitors.  Bedlam and calls for Serbia’s sporting censure.

Such logic, in its own contorted way, reaffirms itself in violence – a man, derided for his skin colour, retaliates and simply confirms the primate premise he is saddled with.  Having scored a victorious goal, he feels a justification and reacts accordingly.  Prejudice, in other words, is self-contained, immune to reason.  It only makes all concerned with it ugly, and, frankly, primate in disposition.

Decoding violence and its spontaneity sometimes defies exercises of reason. Rose did not behave appropriately in the eyes of the referee and was sent off.  The Serbian fans, themselves agitated, added fuel to the fast combusting fire.  Football is rarely about justice but feelings a crime has been committed against your team, a sense of tragedy in motion.  The English team, enraged, reacted in turn.

The initial chants – and Rose’s sending off – precipitated a series of ugly scenes.  Rose moved both arms under his shoulders in a mocking monkey gesture.  In this, he was tapping into a line of thought that football supporters – at least those on the other side – might be children, ape-like, aggressive, and mind numbingly stupid.  The Daily Mail, as it does so exceptionally well, decided to weigh in the debate with its own descriptions that hardly helped.  “Going ape” went one of the captions.  England coach Martin Thomas was subsequently head butted.  England assistant coach Steve Wigley was manhandled.  Stuart Pearce had a chair thrown at him.

The Serbian FA has decided to be mum on the issue, issuing a blanket denial that there was any such chanting.  It, instead, accused Rose of “inappropriate, unsportsmanlike and vulgar manner” behaviour to the fans.  A statement on the Serbian FA site was strenuous in denial.  “Making connection between the seen incident – a fight between members of the two teams – and racism has absolutely no ground and we consider it to be a total malevolence.”

The fury of the incident has been such that it may well have ramifications for the game, more broadly speaking.   Former England player Paul Ince has demanded the strongest measures – a ban of Serbian participation in tournament football for 10 years. Critics of FIFA have also demanded some formalised, punitive measure from FIFA, something Sepp Blatter will probably do his level best to avoid.

Such bans can be deeply counterproductive. Serbia has been Europe’s bogeyman and whipping boy for a good portion of recent European history.  They were the appointed savages, the primal refuse of Europe’s past, the anti-moderns.  They were the ones that had, metaphorically speaking, bananas, not to mention weapons, thrown at them.  Their politicians and commanders have been singled out and put on trial in The Hague, which is not to say that others in the savage wars of the 1990s were not.  Their citizens have been bombed and isolated by sanctions. Brutal measures beget brutal actions.

To ban their sporting teams from competition, teams that provide a struggling country inspired reflection and escape, would be a far broader form of punishment than Ince is willing to contemplate. There is also something to be said that campaigns such as “kick racism out of football” are pushed by a hypocritical class of individuals keen on turning up the pressure, as Brendan O’Neill suggested in The Spectator (February 4), on “white working-class football fans, whom they look upon as childish, inferior, tribal and monkey-like.” Pouring scorn on the position of the suited toffs, O’Neill makes the remark that, “Monkey chants are bad, but comparing ordinary footie fans to apes is OK, apparently.”

While O’Neill’s remarks are more directed at the FA in England – and the anti-oaf brigade happy to revile that species known as the football fan, they are pertinent in how flexible the language of violence and prejudice can be.  There are some hatreds that are acceptable, others that are not.  As the French writer and racial determinist Gobineau claimed, whether or not we are derived from the primates, we are fast heading that way.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: Read other articles by Binoy.