Redux: “Sol, Sol, wherever you may be” – football, abuse and human rights

Following a link to this story by The Spoiler yesterday and the directing of near 1,000 visitors to the site in less than 24 hours, I re-publish the post that has been avidly read following the news that Police have released photos of those being alleged to have abused Sol Campbell…

Following the abuse directed at Sol Campbell during the recent Portsmouth versus Tottenham Hotspur (Spurs) match, the former England defender said:

“It’s out of hand now…This is a human rights situation. If this happened on the street you would be arrested”

It is not the first time that Campbell has suggested this. Back in December 2007 when he, Alex Ferguson and Avram Grant had all been subjected to varying levels of abuse, he stated:

“This is a human rights situation where professional sportsmen – managers as well – want to do their job professionally and people are abusing them verbally”

Having been a Millwall FC fan for some 30 years, Campbell’s comments split my sensibilities. Working with human rights on a day to basis, I appreciate that everyone has the right to freedom from degraded treatment and from discrimination in respect of your rights and freedoms: discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, class and so on.

However, individuals also have the right to the freedom of expression and so if paying football fans are criticising ‘bad’ players, do they not have the right to boo and complain also?

Of course, I’m playing Devil’s Advocate and realise that players are subjected to some of the most appalling verbal abuse (see here for my own experience). And there is some evidence that the abuse received by Campbell may have been of this type. Rod Liddle in the Times suggests that Tottenham fans were singing to him to the tune of the hymn, ‘I am the Lord of the Dance‘:

Sol, Sol, wherever you may be,

You’re on the verge of lunacy,

And we don’t give a fuck when you’re hanging from a tree,

Judas cunt with HIV

In that song alone there could be allegations of racism (hanging from a tree), anti-Semitism (Judas cunt) and homophobia (HIV), let alone the mention of mental illness. If Liddle though is right, much of this is incidental: included in the song largely because it rhymes. The argument that he gives for this is that if anyone knows Tottenham Hotspur FC, they’ll know that their fans identify themselves with Israel and Jewish culture: even their hooligan ‘firm’ are called The Yid Army. To suggest therefore that Spurs fans might be anti-Semitic is – if Liddle is right – somewhat ludicrous. Personally, I’m not convinced and where racist, anti-Semitic or homophobic abuse was directed at Campbell, so the legislation is in place for the necessary action to be taken, something the FA appear to be taking seriously.

But I do think that Liddle has a point in that it would seem to be part and parcel of being a professional football player that you will receive some abuse at some time. Without this, away matches would be quite anodyne experiences, resulting in even fewer people going to watch live football which would no doubt be good news for Sky and Setanta. Some of the greatest strengths of certain team’s stadiums – Millwall’s Old Den being a case in point – has been the atmosphere and ‘reception’ that away teams and their players get. Many managers – including Alex Ferguson – have been known to call on this and regularly the home crowd are described as the ’12th man’. The question now is whether the crowd can still be the ’12th man’ if they don’t abuse – intimidate? – the opposition?

Given my knowledge of football, I know that Fratton Park – home of Campbell’s Portsmouth FC – is one of those stadiums where the home fans create an extremely hostile atmosphere. To suggest that ‘Pompey fans’ are any different from Spurs fans would therefore be wrong and so I wonder whether Campbell will – when overhearing abuse being directed at players from Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal et al – be recommending that his own fans are ejected from the ground and duly prosecuted? I very much doubt it.

Without wishing to endorse such abuse, I do think that some barracking is not only acceptable but somewhat necessary. Where it steps over the line into racism, sexism, homophobia etc, is of course where this becomes unacceptable. But when a player that earns £100,000 per week plays bad and is harrassed for this alone, then I do think that little else can be expected.

And as in the case of Campbell in particular, when you deliberately walk out on a club that you have previously captained and pledged allegiance to at the expense of losing that same club up to £15 million from his sale to its closest and bitterest rival, then I guess that you are not really endearing yourself to ‘the fans’. Likewise, when he went AWOL halfway throughout a match for Arsenal – allegedly ending up in Amsterdam – he must accept that he hasn’t exactly acted in an entirely professional manner, again not in a way that fans might warm to you.

The players themselves should also reflect upon their own behaviour. The Football Association has this season launched ‘Respect‘, a campaign that seeks to address the lack of respect that professional players – amongst others – show towards match officials. Watch ‘Match of the Day’ two weeks in a row and you’ll no doubt see various multi-millionaire players repeatedly telling the referee to ‘Fuck Off’ in no uncertain terms. In an article from 2007 in The Times, this point was voiced much better than I have here:

…on the subject of terrace abuse, Sol Campbell made the point that “if this happened on the street, you would be arrested”. Very true, but the rules of modern football do not apply easily to the real world. Emmanuel Eboué, one presumes, does not “grass up” fellow motorists for parking illegally, let alone for doing so legally; John Terry does not follow policemen around the High Street, telling them how to enforce the law; Cristiano Ronaldo does not dangle a leg and tumble to the floor in the hope of getting a fellow shopper arrested; not even El-Hadji Diouf spits at a passer-by in the street, at least not unless they have looked at him the wrong way.

Absolutely true.

Maybe – Sol Campbell listen up – the players should also begin to realise that if you pledge allegiance to a particular club, one that the fans themselves live and breathe and commit increasing amounts of their hard earned wages to, then it is pretty obvious that when you leave and go to your bitterest rivals, you won’t exactly get a red carpet welcome on your return. Anyone remember Wayne Rooney’s comment of ‘once a blue, always a blue’ before leaving for the red of Manchester United?

What is most worrying about this episode is that professional players at the top of their game increasingly seem to be unable to differentiate between the world they live in and what might better be described as ‘the real world’. Yes, they want huge salaries and are prepared to accept the adulation and praise when they see fit. But then when things go wrong or the press ‘intrude’ beyond the carefully stage-managed photo-ops, they complain they are being over-criticised, over-scrutinised and treated downright unfairly. As the same article in The Times put it when Campbell first argued the human rights abuse case:

It seems that defending your human rights – freedom from criticism, the right to simulate, freedom to self-worship – is to become a Premier League footballer’s new catch-all phrase in times of trouble, or at least confusion

I totally support Campbell in his suggestion that players – and indeed fans – should not have to be subjected to racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic or Islamophobic abuse either on or off the pitch: none of us should. But I do not support Campbell if all he is suggesting is that players should not be subjected to any criticism – what I feel that he is sometimes equating with verbal abuse – whatsoever, whether that be because he believes that he is above criticism or merely because the self-worshipping cult of the untouchable football player that he and far too many others are already a part of is continuing to increasingly cloud his vision of reality.

Creative Commons License

This work by Chris Allen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 UK: England & Wales License. Based on a work at


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