Ask a random person on the street in the United States or Canada to tell you what they know about English football, or even football on the European continent in general. More likely than not, the person you ask will be able to tell you the names David Beckham, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. If you ask them what they know about other than the big-name stars with crossover appeal, they will probably tell you about the passion -- or maybe even the insanity -- of British football fans. Perhaps they have seen Green Street Hooligans.
To those who do not follow the sport in North America, this is the image that they have of football in the United Kingdom. To some, the image is a positive one; they see singing, passion and joy and camaraderie. To some, the image is a negative one, and for good reason. It's not just about hooliganism, but nasty songs with racist and homophobic undertones. They make the songs about the alleged incest that takes place within the Neville family seem tame by comparison.
Tottenham Hotspur fans have partaken in this, and though they are a vulgar minority, it's disingenuous to discredit their fandom. Generally, when songs like this are sung, offended supporters of the club will refer to them as "fans", in quotation marks, attempting to indicate that they are not true supporters of the club but some kind of faux-supporter. As if being a hateful, ignorant, disgusting human being means that you love your team less than someone who is decent and respectful. Sadly, these people are real fans. They may be a minority, but they are very much real supporters of the club. They aren't a reflection of the majority, but they are a sizable enough minority -- at Tottenham and literally every single club in England -- that they are fans, not "fans".
You probably know about the worst of the songs. When Emmanuel Adebayor was playing against Tottenham, supporters sung a disgraceful song that referenced the attack on the Togo national team bus before the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations. For nearly a decade, Spurs fans sang at Sol Campbell that he was a "Judas c--t with HIV" in a song that had both racist and homophobic connotations.
Years ago, before it was deemed socially unacceptable, Arsenal supporters and supporters of other clubs aimed anti-Semitic songs and chants at Tottenham players and supporters. It didn't matter that most of the club staff and fans weren't Jewish; think of how much of an ignorant dolt you would have to be to sing an anti-Semitic song in the first place. If you're that much of an idiot, it's doubtful that you care whether or not the person you direct that song at is actually Jewish.
And who knows what songs I'm unaware of. I'm sure Arsenal supporters have all kinds of songs about our current players that imply that they are homosexual or that they sleep with ugly women or that they have inappropriate sexual relations with family members. Whatever, it's all the same and we've heard it a million times. It's just the nature of rivalries in English football, and most of us have gotten over it by now.
Unfortunately, in another derby this season, things escalated beyond what we've learned to tolerate. The two editions of the Northwest Derby between Liverpool and Manchester United have been about everything but football this season. In their first encounter, Luis Suarez and Patrice Evra got into an altercation where Evra accused Suarez of racially abusing him. An independent investigation commissioned by The FA found Suarez guilty of those accusations and suspended him for eight games.
Before, during and after the incident, Liverpool handled the situation with zero class. Regardless of whether or not Suarez is partially or completely innocent of the charges against him, they made themselves look like an organization that condoned racism.
Upon his return, Suarez refused to shake hands with Evra. Manchester United went on to win the game and Patrice Evra celebrated like he had just scored a stoppage time goal to win the Champions League. He riled up the United fans and pissed off the Liverpool fans. Kenny Dalglish looked like he wanted to fight Evra.
Both Suarez and Dalglish continued to spew nonsense before John Henry laid down the hammer and made everyone apologize for acting like an imbecile. No one's apology ever felt genuine. Suarez and Dalgish still seem to think that there was never any wrong done, and Liverpool's fans haven't helped any. Between the Suarez t-shirts and all of the absolute garbage spewed on RAWK (I'm not linking them, look it up) on a daily basis, Liverpool FC and their fans have been made to look like clowns.
United fans are obviously a little less in the wrong than a group that is dogmatically supporting a guy who was convicted of racist abuse, but it's not like a majority of them have been squeaky clean in this. Many of them have taken the return abuse much too far, to the point where they're almost as bad as those that they are abusing. They could have taken the high ground. The moral high ground was literally gifted to them, in a way that football supporters haven't been gifted the moral high ground in recent history. It seems like most United fans took the low road.
The sad thing is that this will all be okay. Even when we cross the lines that we have set for ourselves, all is eventually forgiven. It's all just called an inevitable part of the game. Everyone will move on.
There has been a lot of sentiment echoed around the media and among fans that Liverpool will struggle to recover their reputation. Supposedly, John Henry had to move quickly to save Suarez, Dalglish and LFC from themselves. He might have been a bit too late, and their reputation might have been tarnished. But will it really be tarnished for that long?
Consider: Liverpool fans started an altercation at Heysel Stadium in the European Cup final in 1985. The fans of Juventus were not without blame and UEFA had no business holding a final in a crumbling stadium, but the point stands that traveling Liverpool supporters started an altercation that killed 39 people and injured 600. That incident got all English clubs banned from European competitions until the 1990-91 season, with Liverpool banned an additional year.
Perhaps I just have a selective memory, but I don't recall anyone talking about Heysel when Liverpool defeated AC Milan to win the 2005 Champions League title. We hear about Hillsborough constantly because of the gross mishandling of that situation by Yorkshire police, The FA and the media, but Heysel is rarely discussed. There are probably a lot of football supporters of all ages outside of England and very young football supporters in England who don't even know what the Heysel disaster is.
The point of this is that football clubs can recover from anything. If Liverpool can recover their reputation after Heysel, they can surely recover from one of their players kicking a guy "because you are black" and their manager defending him. All kinds of nonsense is forgiven and forgotten about in football, and this will be no different. This stuff is just seen as a byproduct of the passion that comes along with these games, and we get over it.
Does football have to be like this? Do we really have to accept racism, homophobia, fan violence and all of the other things that go along with great football rivalries? Why can't we make fun of Arsene Wenger for not winning trophies and not having a clue without calling him a pedophile? Why can't we berate Sol Campbell without bringing race and sexual orientation into it? And why, when opposing fans act like morons, do we have to one-up them? Why can't we just walk away?
Football doesn't have to be like this. People can enjoy the game and still promote the intensity of big derbies without the bile. We can appreciate great rivalry matches for what happens on the pitch and not call opposing players hateful names.
The North London Derby doesn't have to be like this, and I really hope that sites like this one and The Short Fuse can set an example for other football fans. We can make fun of each others' clubs and call each others' players crap without crossing a line. We can shout and argue for two hours, leave the nastiness out of it, then go back to being friends after the game.
Let's hope Sunday's game is actually about football.