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Anyone in the UK who takes even a passing interest in current affairs will be aware of the controversial chant that some sections of the Manchester United support have adopted to show their support for their new free-scoring Belgian marksman. I don’t suppose it’s necessary to quote it verbatim as I’m sure everyone is aware of the contents. Suffice to say it refers to the speculated size of Lukaku’s appendage.
The furore that has been caused since the chant first started to be heard – to the best of my knowledge during the home game against Leicester City – has been remarkable. It has reached fever pitch today as the club requested CCTV footage of United’s away fans at St Mary’s stadium, who were allegedly still singing the forbidden song despite the faceless official statements from the club advising that the chant is offensive and unacceptable. Action is being threatened against those fans who have dared utter the reprehensible chorus. It has been roundly condemned as overtly racist by all mainstream media outlets, and anti-discrimination body Kick It Out stated the chant has “no place in football”.
Now, before I go any further it’s important to state that I accept the chant is racist and perpetuates a racial stereotype. However, it’s also important to say that it seems to me like the mainstream media have lost all semblance of perspective. The truth is that the chant is ignorant and in poor taste, but that’s it. I feel like I’m treading a tight rope in speaking on this topic because today’s society is so hyper-sensitive that it doesn’t take much more that a misguided step to become the latest viral internet hate figure. Despite that, here’s the truth that I feel like no-one is saying: this chant is tame in the world of English football singalongs.
I think the strides British football has made in terms of being inclusive have been admirable, and it is vital that the good work is continued. It is unacceptable for fans to attend football, and be subjected to any form of abuse towards another individual, be it racist, xenophobic, homophobic, religious, sexist or sectarian. Football is to be enjoyed by everyone, it is a tremendous leveller, a worldwide language, and for all colours and creeds. The key word though, is ‘abuse’. Romelu Lukaku is not the subject of abuse, in fact quite the opposite. This chant is sung to show support for a player who is already a certifiable favourite at Old Trafford.
The fact is, we should be focussing on eradicating the vile, directed, and vicious abuse that still rears its ugly head on occasions. Thankfully, nowadays, this is generally limited to lone supporters spouting some isolated and vicious bile, as opposed to thousands of supporters uniting in song. If I think back over the years to the racism towards John Barnes in the 80’s, the homophobia toward Justin Fashanu, or the levels of vitriol aimed at matchday officials; this is the type of abuse that we need to focus on.
The level of coverage received from the fall out between Patrice Evra and Luis Suarez was justified as it was vicious and targeted racism. The condemnation of Robbie Fowler when he made homophobic gestures on the pitch towards Graeme Le Saux (ostracised because he read the Guardian) was fair. The outrage at the monolithic Keys and Gray when sniping at female assistant referee rightly cost them their highly paid presenting jobs with Sky Sports. Players have always received sustained abuse over any scandal in their private lives. Tony Adams and Paul Merson have received attention from away support in relation to their well-documented addiction issues. For me, the emphasis should be on the intent of the actions of the perpetrator.
There are numerous examples in football from recent times of terrace songs that are intended to show support for a player, but could be accused of perpetuating negative or misinformed stereotypes. An example from my native Northern Ireland would be a song that was sung to Coventry City stalwart Sammy Clingan. Obviously, the province has been through ‘The Troubles’, with a deep-seated cultural divide. Great steps have been made in recent years in promoting a cross-community emphasis for the national team. Clingan grew up in a strongly Nationalist area of West Belfast, and traditionally it had been common for players from a Nationalist background to elect to play for the Republic of Ireland. The Northern Ireland fans chose to show their support for Clingan’s loyalty to the national side by singing “He’s got big balls, he’s from the Falls” (in reference to the Falls Road, the dominant road running through West Belfast). Micky Quinn used to receive a rousing support from the Newcastle fans following his £1 million transfer to the club through the song “He’s fat, he’s round, he’s worth a million pound”. Should these chants be condemned for being sectarian, or for body shaming? Of course not, because this is football. It may be ill-conceived and lacking in subtlety, but the intent is to show support for a player they admire.
That brings me back to Lukaku. The intent of the fans is to show support for their fantastic new striker. It is crude and it embellishes a racial stereotype. It demonstrates a level of ignorance and boorishness, but that’s it. I find it frustrating that no one has made any effort to give some balance to what is essentially a non-story. Barry Glendinning made the point on the excellent Guardian Football Weekly podcast that just because the chant isn’t as racist as others, it is still racist and therefore wrong. The rest of the panel described the song as inexcusable. I was left frustrated that no-one had offered a balanced opinion. We have all heard much worse, why is this chant making so many headlines? Why is this suddenly deemed to be the height of offensiveness?
Due to the coverage it has received, the club have rightly rebuked the chant, and Lukaku, diplomatically, summed it up with his Twitter message: “Great backing since I joined #MUFC. Fans have meant well with their songs but let’s move on together #RespectEachother”.
The subject of the song is, of course, right. It should no longer be sung. Some people will say the stereotype is a ‘positive one’, but that is missing the point. However, let’s also be clear – there should be much bigger priorities in the many different types and levels of discrimination to be addressed in football, that, when evident, receive a fraction of the coverage. Let’s move on, get real, and continue to show our support in equally vocal and buoyant ways.