Farrukh Dhondy | Adieu fair play: Sportsmanship under threat in today’s Britain

The Asian Age.  | Farrukh Dhondy

Opinion, Columnists

For some viewers in that room, the game had turned into a metaphorical political war

Since last Sunday, when England lost the football European Cup final to Italy, the last straw in nastiness was loaded on to this camel’s shame-laden back. (Representational Image: AFP)

Some years ago, my late friend Darryl D’Monte invited me to the Bandra Club in Mumbai to watch the telecast of a crucial cricket match between India and Pakistan. The television room of the club was packed. As Darryl was a life and board member of the club, we were given prime reserved seats.

The match began and India’s wickets began to fall. The perhaps three-hundred-strong throng in the clubroom began to yell foul slogans and filthy epithets against the Pakistanis -- not the individual skilled bowlers, not the team that was playing that day, but the nation of Pakistan.

For some viewers in that room, the game had turned into a metaphorical political war.

Twice Darryl rose from his seat and using his authority as a respected member of the club asked these dissenters to pipe down, even saying this wasn’t war or a political contest, it was a game. For a few moments after he spoke there was silence, but soon the mood turned as more Indian wickets began to fall. The abusive racket which now burst into futile abstract threats and even took a nasty religious turn, resumed and drowned out the commentary from the screen. Darryl got up and decided to leave. I followed.

Outside the room he said he was going to get the TV set turned off. One of his fellow board members, who had walked out with us, advised Darryl against any such thing. There would be a riot. We watched the rest of the game in Darryl’s flat.

The rowdies in the club were not street or slum “taporis”. They were prosperous upper-class Indians who had the pedigree or wherewithal to be members of the club or their guests. Such though was the deviant, misguided pseudo-patriotism of the moment.

To them it wasn’t just a game. Yes, there were skirmishes between Indian and Pakistani troops in Kashmir. There were real battles with lives at stake and in those circumstances one would expect patriots to take sides and express their extreme antagonisms as nations have done throughout history. But why elevate a game, especially one which is supposedly dedicated to the ethic of fair play, to the status of mortal armed combat? All may be fair in love and war, but isn’t there something called sportsmanship?

Not in Britain and not for what the British have labelled “the beautiful game”. Since last Sunday, when England lost the football European Cup final to Italy, the last straw in nastiness was loaded on to this camel’s shame-laden back.
The nastiness began when the players in the European Cup teams began to “take the knee” before each game -- a gesture which stands for their opposition to racism in the game and in society. Several England fans in the stands began their routine “booing” of this anti-racist stance.

Before each European game, the national anthem of each team is played and the teams sing their hearts out as the band plays it. In every game, in England at least, a section of the English fans jeered and booed when the opposite team’s anthem was played. Yes, gentle reader, “the beautiful game”!

The final national disgrace followed the defeat of England on penalties. Three of the players chosen by England’s manager Gareth Southgate to take these penalties were Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka. Rashford shot towards the left of the goal and hit the goal posts. The other two tries were fielded by the Italian goalkeeper.

All three players are black.

They took the brunt of the blame for the loss of the European Cup. A Sargasso Sea of racist abuse and threats broke over the social media. I could, gentle reader, have used the cliché of a storm of abuse -- but storms are just clean wind and water. This was nasty enough for BoJo, the Prime Minister himself, intervening to condemn it and proposing new rules to trace and ban the trolling racists.

At the stadium in Wembley, and in other parts of London where fans had gathered in their thousands, ugly scenes broke out. England fans began to physically assault Italians as they left the stadium. Italian fans were attacked on the tube and in Trafalgar Square.

Rashford, who comes from a suburb of Manchester, became a national hero when he campaigned for the government to maintain the schools’ free-lunch programme for poor children through the Covid epidemic. The population of Withington in gratitude dedicated a wall with a mural of a portrait of their hero. Following England’s defeat, the mural was daubed with abusive graffiti. But here’s the redeeming news. When word of this defacement got out, thousands of tributes to Rashford were posted on and at the foot of the mural. Flowers, messages, notes of support and regret overflowed onto the street below the wall.
Rashford himself said he could take criticism for his footballing slips which contributed to England’s last-minute, narrow defeat, but never for who he was and where he came from.

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.