Football’s Dark Side: Corruption, Homophobia, Violence and Racism in the Beautiful Game

Authors: Ellis Cashmore and Jamie Cleland
Publisher: Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. 106p.
Reviewer: Stuart Waiton | March 2016

In this readable, short hardback book published by Palgrave, Ellis Cashmore, a professor of culture, media and sport, and Jamie Cleland, a criminology lecturer at Loughborough University, attempt to expose or at least unpick the ‘dark side’ of football. Using both historical and academic writings on football they incorporate the online feedback of up to 10,000 football fans to understand the nature of violence, corruption, homophobia and racism within football.

Starting with a look at corruption in the game, Cashmore and Cleland note that football from the outset was a business and as such money has overpowered idealistic notions such as sportsmanship and fair play. With today’s preoccupation about the lack of role models in football it is interesting to note that as early as 1886 in Badminton Magazine concerns were already being expressed about, ‘The artisan [who] differs from the public-school man’, the artisan, ‘plays to win at all costs’, which, ‘leads him to play up the rules [and] indulge in dodges and tricks which the public school man is apt to consider dishonourable’.

Today, globalisation, it is argued, has increased the significance of betting in football and the potential for match fixing, as illustrated by the corruption in Serie A in 2006. The “bungs” (or bribery) scandal of the 1990s involving manager George Graham and others – are associated here with the ‘gentrification’ of the game, a game that was developing more affluent tastes in the late 20th Century. More seriously, the authors of Football’s Dark Side argue that evidence in recent years has ‘uncovered endemic corruption, reaching all parts of the FIFA organization, all across the globe.’ The example of the João Havelange, the former FIFA president who was judged to have taken millions of dollars in illicit kickbacks, raises questions about the corruption in football coming from the top down. His successor Sepp Blatter also had to step down from the presidency under a cloud of similar scandals in 2015. Whether this amounts to endemic corruption is questionable, however, so Cashmore and Cleland attempt to ascertain the opinion of football fans themselves using their online research platform that ‘allows us to understand what football fans think and feel.’

This online resource allows fans to express opinions about an array of issues and the authors use it to pose questions on topical issues to assess public views, such as: ‘FIFA cares about making money from football. They do not care for its history or its future. FIFA are cockroaches.’ Others spoke of a ‘gravy train’ and regularly discussed an ‘endemic’ problem. Only 26 of 1500 fans thought that Havelange was an exception rather than the rule. However, this popular image of FIFA and Sepp Blatter as corrupt, repeated here by fans, does not necessarily prove that this is the case, regardless of how many fans say it. Unless these fans have insider evidence of corruption in football’s governing bodies (which we cannot tell from this research) all that this may reflect is a common sense understanding of the ‘cockroaches’ in world football.

The book also seeks to address the issue of football violence or “hooliganism” as it is known in the British context. A review of past theories in this regard raises issues regarding alienation and commercialisation, the territoriality of ‘animal’ like groups of fans, and football as a site of resistance for the lower working classes. Eighty nine percent of fans they asked said that violence no longer existed at the level it once did, however. The authors attribute this, in part, to the gentrification of the game via higher ticket prices coupled with CCTV-led hyper-surveillance. Violence, however, they note, has not and will not go away, one key reason being the intense expression of difference that lies at the heart of football fandom. Something that, when mixed with the ‘violent passions’ of the game, can result in violent behaviour. The authors note, however, that ‘violence’ is not just from fans, and, indeed, as a Portsmouth fan noted, football banning orders are a serious breach of human rights.

Perhaps most usefully, Cashmore and Cleland unpick the presumption that homophobia is a problem amongst football fans. This idea they argue is ‘grotesquely misleading’. There is a common presumption, illustrated by the public relations advisor Max Clifford, that, on the issue of homosexuality, football, ‘remains in the dark ages’. Indeed this idea appears to be borne out by the fact that professional footballers in England refused to take part in a promotional campaign about homosexuality in 2010 due to concerns about being ridiculed. But is this because football fans are homophobic?

To find out, research was undertaken which led to 3,500 responses by fans. Of these fans 93 percent said that homophobia had no place in football. What mattered to the fans was what they did on the pitch, not what people did in their private lives. Indeed fans resented being characterized as homophobic. This, the authors argue, connects to academic work looking at the declining significance of the ‘hegemonic form of conservative masculinity’ and also to the rise of, and increasing acceptability of ‘metrosexual man’: Something that has been part of even sporting identities developed by individuals like David Beckham.

Despite the emergence of new measures announced by the police in 2013 to deal with homophonic chanting in grounds, Cashmore and Cleland note how there is a paradox connected to football and offensiveness at football: homophobic chanting may not reflect homophobic attitudes of fans. Rather, part and parcel of being a fan is to act as the ‘twelfth man’ for the team, to undermine your opponents using whatever tools you have. For fans, this is necessarily done verbally. A fan of Brighton and Hove Albion (a team that is sometimes mocked for being ‘gay’) noted for example that, ‘Sport’s all about exploiting weakness in your opponents and being seen as gay and therefore unmanly would probably be too good an opportunity to miss.’ A Portsmouth fan likewise said that, ‘It may not be that fans have an issue with a player being gay, rather that it is an obvious way to target a player and put him off his game.’ Some fans argued that a campaign promoting homosexuality would be useful, others argued that, ‘endless campaigning and forcing opinions on people’ was patronising and unhelpful.

The question of why gay football players do not ‘come out’ remains to be answered however. The authors suggest that it may be a financial decision, possibly something driven by agents who do not want anything to undermine the image and therefore financial viability of their players. This may be the case. Arguably the irritation of being mocked by thousands of fans is also a reason. Yet, we should perhaps also question the idea that footballers do not ‘come out’ in the first place. Perhaps it is the case that some players do ‘come out’ to other players and people within the game, but do not do so publically and to the world media. The ‘brand’ within the game may be part of an explanation, but as most gay people do not have to stand in front of television cameras to explain to the world that they are gay, perhaps we should ask why we should expect football players to do so. In this respect, it could be our preoccupation with the need to ‘fight homophobia,’ rather than a general problem of homophobia that generates the anxiety that forces us to keep digging for answers to these questions?

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of this book was the chapter on racism in football. Here there was very little use made of the online research with fans (a problem that was more general throughout the book). Perhaps the problem was that the wrong questions were asked, so that unlike the section on homophobia, there was little sense of getting close to what fans actually thought and believed.

Racism they observe did in fact decline in football in the 1990s compared with the 1970s and 1980s when racial abuse at football was relatively common, unemployment was surging, and far right political groups had some success in elections. However, they argue racism has returned. Half the fans in their survey for example said that they have experienced some form of racism at football since 2010, with 80 percent agreeing that the emergence of social media has helped facilitate this type of behaviour. Perhaps, they argue, the football authorities have become complacent about racism at a time when there may be a ‘white backlash’ against black celebrity players, creating a sense of envy amongst the white working class.

It is a shame that the authors could not have gained more from the respondents to their website and surveys when addressing this question of racism in football. Of those who had experienced racism, for example, was this a regular occurrence? And what exactly was it that they were defining as racist behaviour? Perhaps most usefully, did they support or oppose this behaviour? After all, could it not be possible that the 93 percent of fans who oppose homophobia are also opposed to racism? Perhaps the 80 percent who said that social media outlets have allowed racism to be more visible are also opposed to racism. This would seem more than possible.

Further, the idea that the football authorities have become complacent about racism in football does not sit comfortably with the plethora of laws, high profile political initiatives, and frequent ‘Say no to Racism’ campaigns that exist across world football. As the quarter final captains in the World Cup are forced to read pre-prepared, scripted anti-racist messages to fans across the world, it could be argued that rather than racism being normalized, that anti-racism (or at least ‘official’ anti-racism) is the norm.

The apparent rise of racism in football today may, in fact, be more to do with today’s elites, and their construction of racism as a problem, than with any actual rise in the problem itself. This can arguably be seen with the changing way that racism is understood and policed for example, with anti-racism increasingly being about controlling ‘offensive behaviour,’ regulating the words of individuals, rather than with structural issues of inequality. With the emphasis of official anti-racism being on offensiveness, it is perhaps unsurprising that football fans (and indeed players) have become the focus of anti-racist activism. As Cashmore and Cleland usefully observe, within football, being offensive is a core part of the game. Perhaps when fans chant racist songs (which is relatively rare today), this is simply an attempt to undermine the opposition. This was the authors’ argument with homophobic chants after all. We may hate to hear racist chants at games but we need to be consistent as social scientists in our attempt to understand what it is we are observing.

At times, in terms of rhetoric, Football’s Dark Side lived up to its sinister name with hyperbolic exaggerations used to either emphasize a problem or to play to the reader’s desire for outrage. The introduction for example draws us into this dark world of football by explaining that ‘the sport has a dark side: it is riven with corruption, homophobia, violence and racism’ [my emphasis]. A few pages on, the authors state that, ‘no one likes to believe that football is a sport purged of goodness. But it probably is.’ Still in the introduction, the authors tell us that it is hard for football’s governing body to ‘preach respect, harmony and mutual respect to fans while players were spitting, biting and spouting racial abuse at each other’, as if these occurrences were parcel regular part of daily footballing. Finally, what football has not managed to do, the introduction concludes is to ‘rid itself of the noxious discharges that characterize football’s past.’

Strangely, Cashmore and Cleland conclude that their book is important because ‘only occasionally do we pause to reflect on the darker aspects of football.’ Yet, following Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond’s mobilization of the Scottish political classes in 2011 to fight sectarianism and offensiveness in Scottish football, we then found the UK prime minister David Cameron organising a high profile summit to fight racism and homophobia in English football. Indeed, in recent times, the ‘dark side’ of football has been on not only the back but also the front pages of every British newspaper. In many respects seeing football as a violent, corrupt and bigoted game is de rigueur.

Dr Stuart Waiton is a sociology and criminology lecturer at Abertay University and is author of Snob’s Law: Criminalising Football Fans in an Age of Intolerance.

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