England aren’t unique in abuse problem; football culture is toxic

Date published: Wednesday 30th March 2022 5:27 - Ian King

England defender Harry Maguire

England defender Harry Maguire was on the receiving end of abuse against Ivory Coast, but this is a poison that spreads beyond one culture.


The booing started before kick-off at Wembley, and it’s plainly obvious that it had little or nothing to do with England. Ivory Coast didn’t put up a great deal of opposition in this friendly match, but Harry Maguire’s performance was reasonably accomplished; he had a hand in a goal and England kept a clean sheet without to much difficulty. Realistically speaking, Gareth Southgate wouldn’t have asked for anything more.

But this is a distraction, really. It doesn’t matter how Maguire played for England in this match, and we know this definitively because the booing started before a ball had even been kicked, and most likely for reasons of club-related toxicity. And the temptation to examine his performance in view of this attempted pro-action, to try to criticise the abusers because a player didn’t play badly on this occasion, is to miss the point. Seeking to ‘disprove’ the booers by picking apart a player’s performance is giving their behaviour a level of validation that it doesn’t deserve.

There is certainly a subset of football supporter for whom nothing will ever be good enough. We can speculate over the reasons why they might behave this way – the impact of video games which make the physically extremely difficult something that any idiot can do by pressing a handful of buttons at the same time? The malign influence of a society that amplifies the loudest and most extreme positions on any given subject, no matter how stupid they might be and which increasingly values infantilism over mental maturity? The possibility that high ticket prices engender a sense of entitlement that can never be satiated?  Is it, as John Nicholson suggests, ‘just people who think they’ve paid their money and that gives them the right to abuse a player’? – but even understanding this is unlikely to change the behaviour of people for whom the sense of entitlement is already so high.

Why, exactly, should any of us care about the motives of anybody who boos a player during – or, even more absurdly, before – a match for any reason other than to try and breed its worst excesses out of the game? Because the point at which people who might self-identify as ‘supporters’ are booing players before a match has even started is probably the point at which we need to turn our attention away from those who are being jeered and towards those who are doing the jeering.

The ‘amount of money they earn’ doesn’t wash here. The culture of abuse goes on right the way down football’s food chain, from seasoned England internationals down to the level at which players aren’t earning any more than those who are watching them, while the extent to which referees are quitting the grassroots game because of the bullshit they have to put up with on a Sunday morning is causing a genuine existential crisis for youth and amateur football.

Of course, it doesn’t help when people with reach in the media speak out against this sort of behaviour being unacceptable. Step forward Roy Keane, who said after the match that Maguire should “be big enough and man enough just to get on with the game”. Grrrr, yeah, just man up. Ignore the constant slew of vituperative abuse that follows you everywhere and just MAN UP. It’s a strange line of reasoning, to reach immediately for the idea that this is somehow the fault of the person on the receiving end of the abuse rather than the person witlessly throwing it around in the first place. It doesn’t sound like victim-blaming. It is victim-blaming.

But generally, the closer you get to the absolute heart of the game, the less abuse of players there is. The players all know better than to sling this sort of thing around, and the response to criticisms of abuse is always the same, an assumption that ‘ex-pros’ are just circling the wagons, when it seems altogether more likely that professional players know exactly how difficult playing the game at that level can be, and how such abuse can hurt.

Indeed, it’s likely that quite a few of these abusers have little to no idea how difficult it all is, or just how good professional players actually are. Anybody who has spent more than 30 seconds on a pitch with any number of them will already be aware of this, but even those that are routinely denigrated as being ‘donkeys’ are capable of doing things with a football that those in the stands could only ever dream of replicating.

It would be instructive (and likely cathartic, for those amongst us who are sick of this culture of disrespect and abuse) to put 11 abusers – a ‘troll’ is something subtly different; let’s stick to calling them what they actually are – up against 11 professional players and see what sort of state they’re in by the end of 90 minutes, or to turn up at their job and stand behind them offering imbecilic ‘advice’ and abuse all day.

To be clear, this isn’t about England, or any specific player, even though the culture surrounding the England team can look especially toxic. Look at the replies to any tweet sent by a club or player and you’ll see a rainbow coalition of flags from all around the world. It isn’t about any one specific club, because it’s pretty much universal in that respect. And it isn’t specific to any particular age, either. There are plenty of examples of fully grown adults whose emotional incontinence after a football match has cost them their jobs after abusive messages they sent online blew up and found their way to their employers.

And none of this is about mollycoddling players or deflecting criticism, either. We’re definitely not talking about constructive criticism here, and no-one would suggest that anybody should be immune from fair criticism. But the idea that that the amount of abuse that players routinely receive is (or even is meant to be) constructive in any way whatsoever is obviously ridiculous, and furthermore there is absolutely no-one on earth who clutches their pearls tighter than football supporters themselves when they’re on the receiving end of a perceived slight.

In all honesty, football is little more than a reflection of the world in which it is situated, and it’s a world in which casual cruelty has become almost expected. We’ve probably all guilty of being insufferable on social media at some point or other, and we can all do better. But football’s culture does feel uniquely prone to bringing out the worst in people, with its combination of ever-increasing tribalism and the game being watched by a vast audience who are frequently kidded into believing that they understand it better than those who’ve spent years and years living and breathing it.

And all of this can – should – provoke uncomfortable questions. Are men’s players fair game while women’s players aren’t? Is it reasonable to say that all verbal abuse is fair game while any form of physical assault is verboten? Isn’t racist verbal abuse acceptable if ‘all’ verbal abuse is acceptable? If this is about how much they earn (spoiler: no-one seriously believes it is), then where’s the line? Because abuse is ultimately a form of bullying, and the point at which people are seeking to defend those who act in this way is surely the point at which it’s all gone way too far. Unfortunately, it feels as though this pandora’s box opened a long time ago, and it will be near-impossible to close it again.

More Related Articles