Early Doors

The end of the world as we know it?

Early Doors

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As it turns out the Mayans were half right. The world won't end on December 21, but it seems English football might, a once beautiful game completely obliterated by an unstoppable tide of hatred that consumes all in its path. The prophecies are true: these are truly end days. Start tending a grave for your polyester replica shirt.

This apocalyptic vision appears to be the growing consensus amongst the more alarmist sections of our national media following an admittedly depressing week that witnessed Rio Ferdinand bleeding from a missile impact to the face and Norwich complain of four incidents of alleged racial abuse directed at Sebastien Bassong.

The Telegraph's sport section conveys this fear of football's imminent doomsday with a front page reading: 'Enough is enough: the now weekly degradation of racism, violence and venom must stop, says Paul Hayward. The authorities should consider real punishments — such as points deductions and closed grounds — if we are to stop hatred killing the game.'

Killing the game? In the most globally popular league in the history of football? If it all sounds a bit hyperbolic, that's probably because it is. Yet the Mirror takes up the theme, sensationally lamenting that: 'Even by English football's standards of hooligan fetishes, the plague of morons are in danger of ushering in a new dark age.'

Plague of morons? It's enough to make you start hoarding tinned goods and building a bunker for fear of marauding bands of hooligans laying waste to the nation, decorated in poorly tattooed club crests and knock-off Stone Island jackets.

And what of the Mail, that upstanding bastion of moral rectitude? 'At the end of a wonderful sporting year, maybe the greatest year of all, football lies in the doghouse,' writes Michael Henderson. 'Our Olympians, led by the magnificent Jessica Ennis, wear their gold medals with modesty. Bradley Wiggins and Andy Murray are champions, and our golfers stand supreme.

'At rugby we have just beaten the All Blacks by 17 points. In cricket Alastair Cook is leading his men to a notable victory in India. Yet in football, wherever one looks, there is disgrace. Then there are the fans. You know the type, those lovely folk who spend every Saturday afternoon and many nights of the week spitting poison at anybody who comes within a coin's throw.'

Hilarious, even by the Mail's exalted standards of frothy-mouthed moralising. But to start labelling football fans as faceless morons, or to suggest, as PFA chief Gordon Taylor has, that they should be placed behind netting, risks allowing a few embarrassing and regrettable incidents to jeopardise the huge strides the game has made over the past 20 years or so.

The national game - signing off billion-pound TV deals, saturating foreign markets, recruiting the best players the world has to offer to play in gleaming all-seater stadia - is unrecognisable from what it once was. It might have lost plenty of character, but it has never been safer. A return to the demonisation and dehumanisation of supporters seen in the 1980s would be a retrograde step. We've seen what happens when football fans are treated as a senseless, unsympathetic mass, and it ain't pretty.

To read the papers today you'd be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that all football fans are the worst kind of scum. They aren't, not the vast majority of them.

That's not to say there aren't problems with our national game though.

The frequency with which racism, whether on the pitch or in the stands, has flared up over the past 12 months should not be underplayed. Racist tweets, gestures and comments have been a near weekly occurrence at times, undoubtedly destroying any complacency, or superiority complex, the English game had about race and the fight to combat discrimination. As rightly pointed out by Kick It Out's Lord Ouseley today in an interview with the Guardian, there are very real concerns about the inadequacy of the response to high profile cases — a situation ED has covered ad nauseum.

But our more sanitised, tolerant landscape, the legacy of years and years of progress, makes transgressions by supporters even starker than they once were. When they occur, they are met with condemnation and punishments. There is still much work to be done, but to equate the current situation with that of the 1980s and beyond is misguided at best.

Isolated cases are despicable, but claims of a new tide of hatred spewing from the stands doesn't stand up to statistical scrutiny. As assistant chief constable Andy Holt, the Association of Chief Police Officers lead on football policing, said just a few weeks ago: "Compared with the 2010/11 season there has been a marked decrease in the number of public disorder incidents, alcohol offences and racist or indecent chanting at games."

In fact, let's read more from November's Premier League report: "Supporter safety at Premier League grounds has never been greater after a Home Office report showed that football-related arrests fell by more than 30 per cent last season.

"More than 13 million fans went to the 380 matches in the Barclays Premier League last season and during that time 814 arrests were made, a rate of 2.14 a match. This was down from 1,191 in the 2010/11 season. There were significant drops in arrests for public disorder and violent disorder, as well as for racist chanting and pitch incursions."

The notion that English football is returning to the dark ages is a media construction, based on admittedly disgraceful and high-profile incidents. It makes for good headlines, especially when the visuals are so arresting.

The sight of Ferdinand bleeding from the head after being hit whilst celebrating Manchester United's last minute winner on Sunday was shocking — so too were the worrying few seconds when a City fan tried to confront him, only to be stopped by Joe Hart. Chris Kirkland was also the victim of a televised unprovoked assault when his Sheffield Wednesday side visited Leeds earlier in the season. Without doubt two outrageous, shameful moments that had no place in the game.

Yet the reaction to the Ferdinand incident has been out of all proportion. He was struck by a coin — and it could have had worse repercussions than a cut eyebrow — but this was an isolated event: only a tiny, tiny proportion of supporters would ever do something as reprehensible. Desperate for a response, are we to ban fans from bringing money to matches? Should we string up netting, or resurrect Ken Bates's electric fences?

Malcolm Clarke, chairman of the Football Supporters' Federation, struck a note of caution yesterday: "Netting is not something we feel is necessary. No one condones the throwing of missiles, but arrests last season were 24 per cent down on previous seasons and not many social phenomena alter that much. It is undoubtedly improving and before we start making knee-jerk reactions to particular incidents we ought to bear that in mind."

PFA chairman Clarke Carlisle also had his say, telling the Mirror: "As an industry, we have started picking out individuals who make racist gestures or shout abuse which goes beyond the pale, so let's root out the idiots who throw missiles or go on the pitch to confront players."

Yet that is exactly what the police are doing - that's their job. They might not have found the Ferdinand perpetrator yet, but that's not to say that the authorities have suddenly become permissive over incidents like this, that the FA isn't bothering to expel violent offenders from the stands or that the game has a great big hooligan problem once again. Statistics show that isn't the case.

Even Ferdinand played the coin incident down when joking about it on Twitter, while Gary Neville, as always, summed up the situation perfectly last night, saying of footballers being placed in hostile environments: "Well, Rocky had to go to Russia."

After that fight against Ivan Drago, Rocky inspired a Mikhail Gorbachev lookalike to rise to his feet, along with the rest of his faux Politburo, melting cold Communist hearts and declaring: "I can change, and you can change, everybody can change."

Well, English football has done its fair share of changing over the past two decades. There is still much work to do to combat racism, while any incident of violence towards a player is clearly one too many, but reports of English football's demise have been greatly exaggerated.

In general it's safer and more sanitised than it ever has been. Despite what you may read in the papers, the end isn't nigh, and all football fans are not to be written off as knuckle-dragging morons incapable of realising that hurling a coin at one player, or racially abusing another, is beyond the pale.

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QUOTE OF THE DAY: "I think Ferguson is going to sack everyone if we let slip another lead like this... No, I'm serious. It would not be funny, for the fans, for the players, for everyone. A six-point lead - the league is not finished yet, there is a long way to go, but I really mean now we have to make sure we are ready for Sunderland." - Patrice Evra raises the prospect of a round of redundancies at Old Trafford if Manchester United fail to win the league this season.

FOREIGN VIEW: Gerd Mueller has hailed Lionel Messi as "an incredible player" after the Barcelona star broke his record for the most goals in a calendar year. Mueller grabbed 85 goals for Bayern Munich and West Germany in 1972 and the mark stood for 40 years until Sunday night when Messi netted his 85th and 86th goals of an incredible 2012 in Barca's 2-1 win at Real Betis.

Mueller led the tributes, telling Sport1.de: "My record stood for 40 years - 85 goals in 60 games - and now the best player in the world has broken it, and I'm delighted for him. He is an incredible player, gigantic. He's such a nice and modest professional and I hope he gets one or two more goals in 2012 and that he can then hold onto the record for the next 40 years. He's fantastic. He only has one defect and that is that he doesn't play for Bayern Munich!"

COMING UP: The Capital One Cup quarter-finals are upon us with Arsenal taking a strong squad to Bradford City and Paul Lambert returning to Norwich City for the first time with Aston Villa. There's also a slice of Premier League action as struggling Sunderland host struggling Reading in a good old fashioned struggle-off.

Hot or Not picks out the funny moments from the weekend's football while the Whistleblower pops in at 1pm to address some of the more controversial incidents. We also have blogs from Paul Parker, Arsene Wenger and James Horncastle for Pitchside Europe.

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