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Danny Rose need not Google Serge Aurier. Tottenham’s newly-minted £25m right-back is a household name; capped 41 times for his native Ivory Coast, he is an Africa Cup of Nations winner and was a fixture in PSG’s well-oiled title-winning teams of the past three seasons.
Aurier is an excellent right-back capable of whipping in a wicked cross, and his ability to work tirelessly up and down his flank should make him a hit in Mauricio Pochettino’s high pressing system. The 24-year-old should prove a significant upgrade on Kieran Trippier who has been utterly disappointing in Spurs’ start to the season and despite having the team specifically organised to make use of him as a fourth attacker. Aurier will have no problems flourishing in this type of role, and indeed there’s an argument to be made the Ivorian is better than Kyle Walker, sold to Manchester City for double the fee.
If Rose decides to look up his new teammate on the internet, however, he will find ample evidence of why this could be a particularly difficult move for sections of Spurs fans to come to terms with. Aurier is trouble personified, a walking example of How Not To Behave As A Footballer.
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There was the three-game ban from UEFA for calling referee Bjorn Kuipers a ‘dirty son of a bitch’ in a Facebook video; an ill-advised Q&A on Persicope where he called Angel Di Maria a ‘clown’, complained about favouritism towards Zlatan Ibrahimovic, before calling then-PSG manager Laurent Blanc ‘une fiotte’ which translates in English to ‘faggot’.
Naturally PSG weren’t thrilled with his abhorrent behaviour especially after initially claiming the video was recorded by an impostor, and was duly banished to the reserves and banned for two months. It’s a measure of the character of the man that his move to Spurs was held up by legal wrangles over his two-month conviction for elbowing a policeman on a night out in Paris last year. The conviction, albeit suspended, was enough for the UK Home Office to deny him a visa when PSG visited Arsenal in last season’s Champions League.
This all raises awkward questions about how much a player’s misdemeanours and indiscretions should play a part in how we view them. The answers to these questions have invariably been coloured by partisanship and player ability: a large number of Chelsea fans still adore John Terry despite his reputation for being an unsavoury character.
More so this puts Spurs in a spot of bother than perhaps any other club; here is a self-professed family-oriented and inclusive football club going all out to sign an admittedly excellent player with a chequered history especially as regards the acceptance of gay people. Understandably this has devolved into a mirror image of the culture war currently engulfing society at large: on one hand there are fans railing against PC Culture and who just want to get on with winning games and putting points on the board, and on the other there are fans who are quite reasonably asking why their club, so often a self-styled bastion of inclusion, is now throwing its values away and embracing Aurier. Could it be the club only upheld its values because they were never seriously put to the test before now?
As ever there are valid arguments on both sides of the topic, and there is the need for a nuanced and clear-eyed view of the underlying factors. Homosexuality is prohibited by law in many African countries (although Cote d’Ivoire is an outlier in that there are no rules banning it, except as indecent behaviour in public; there are no legal protections for the LGBT community however), and with religion and laws being closely related in what still remains a largely conservative continent, it’s not unsurprising that views on sensitive issues like this may appear as backwards to the Westerners now calling for Aurier’s head.
Now it would be overly simplistic to attribute Aurier’s homophobia to his origins as an African, and as such his devoutness as a practicing Muslim also provides context. It’s no secret the two major religions worldwide – Islam and Christianity – outwardly oppose same-sex alliances. It’s similar to what is obtainable particularly in conservative Southern U.S Christian communities, where death and destruction are promised on people who supposedly go against the word of the bearded guy upstairs.
This searing essay by a former member of a Baptist church in the U.S. further sheds light on the pernicious yet utterly profound effects of why a childhood spent being told people different from us are unequal and/or immoral can shape how people think for several years even after they cross into adulthood. This is no excuse for Aurier’s bigotry against homosexuals but rather an acknowledgement of the powerful factors that shape other peoples’ views and why complicated issues are not as cut and dry as they first appear.
The important question now is if the player has learnt any lessons from his past and is ready to make a concerted effort to right his previous wrongs.
Football loves a redemption story; it’s all part of its slavish dedication to overarching narratives and plot twists. In Luis Suarez’s final season at Liverpool, newspaper column inches were filled with opinions on how this represented redemption for him, despite the player not once admitting to wrongdoing for racially abusing Patrice Evra.
Scoring goals and winning matches, it seems, washes the stench of morally reprehensible behaviour away. With Aurier’s undoubted qualities on the pitch, it’s extremely easy to see becoming the narrative of his time with Spurs. If his time at PSG is anything to go by, he’ll provide easy copy for the tabloid press and all will be glossed over once and for all. Yet Spurs will be mistaken to not address the elephant in the room and take it on headlong. By all accounts Spurs have been welcoming to their LGBT fan groups, most notably but not limited to the Proud Lilywhites and have engaged them in discussion regarding Aurier’s transfer.
Everyone in life, Aurier included, deserves a second chance. But second chances only come when offending parties have shown contrition for the error of their ways. PSG Chairman Nasser Al-Khelaifi reportedly punched a door in anger over Aurier’s insincerity in his apology for the Periscope incident, and therefore it’s not a stretch to assume he doesn’t believe the words he said during that apology.
It’s important not to set ourselves up as self-appointed guardians of morality here but at the same time, Spurs need to show they are devoted to the values of inclusion they hold dear and demand Aurier reaches out to the fans who are most affected by his comments. His comments on signing for Spurs are are great start, but just a start. Beyond statements laden with PR-speak, Spurs and Aurier need to make genuine efforts to mend whatever bridges burned by his arrival in north London.
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It shouldn’t come as a surprise, however, if none of this happens. Football clubs often behave like multi-national corporations, because they are indeed multi-national corporations: club chairmen as CEOs. The main purpose as in every other business is profit maximisation, and as such only issues that affect the bottomline are dealt with. Club chairmen will do just about anything within the limits of the law (and sometimes outside these limits) to earn an advantage for the clubs they run.
There is nothing to suggest Daniel Levy and the Spurs brass are any different. Much was made of Pochettino’s decision to rid the squad of the troublesome players shortly after his arrival, with Younes Kaboul, Emmanuel Adebayor and Benoit Assou-Ekotto all departing. While this remains the correct decision, the narrative of Pochettino as disciplinarian conveniently ignores the fact all those players were well past their sell-by dates and provided no value on the pitch. It has been clear for years that when a player is still valuable, their indiscretions are often glossed over; in fact, that’s the reason PSG didn’t immediately sack Aurier after his Persicope outburst.
This represents a golden opportunity for Spurs to put their words into action; to show they are indeed a community club and not the figment of a copywriter’s imagination. Aurier has been signed but there is a chance to bring marginalised fans onside by showing everyone is still cared for. Otherwise, Spurs lose their moral high ground and become just another identikit soulless corporate entity siding with points on the board over basic human decency and where the idea of inclusion amounts to nothing more than a signed T-shirt here and a glossy photo op there without real action.