01/7/15

Unwelcome Change: Steven Gerrard and the Bigger Picture

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The dust is finally beginning to settle after an announcement that Liverpool fans would have been dreading for some time. Steven Gerrard, a man voted by the readers of Sky Sports and the Liverpool Echo as the greatest Reds player in history, is leaving after 25-years at the club. But what does this outpouring of emotion reveal about people’s fear of change and the fragility of identity.

Gerrard’s decision to embark on a new venture in MLS next season is understandable. For a born competitor who still has plenty of energy left in those industrious legs, the prospect of having your game time “managed” is less than appealing. Of course, much has been written regarding the 34-year-olds departure and he has rightly received the highest plaudits. He has been eulogised as a ‘legend’ and one of the greatest ‘one-club players’ in history. The sceptics have taken umbrage to the latter assertion.

By definition, perhaps it would be wrong to put the Merseyside man alongside club icons such as Paolo Maldini, Francesco Totti and Ryan Giggs, purely due to the fact that these players have only played for one club throughout their professional careers. That said, although Gerrard will be plying his trade in the United States next season, it would be unfair to question his loyalty, especially when this is predominately based on a transfer to Chelsea that never happened. It’s a spurious slur. Although Liverpool’s captain marvel handed in a transfer request to join the Blues in 2005, the move never materialised. Despite the temptation, he decided against joining Roman Abramovich’s revolution and his only peccadillo was considering a lucrative and career changing offer. Few players wouldn’t.

But that’s why Gerrard’s decision to leave Liverpool has fuelled such strong opinion. Loyalty is a diminishing commodity and players like Gerrard are a dying breed. With the opening of yet another January transfer window, many supporters across Europe will anxiously be scanning the gossip columns, hoping beyond hope that one of their club heroes or prized assets doesn’t give into the lure of a remunerative contract or the promise of silverware.

There is often a disparity between the loyalties of a supporter and that of a player. It’s one of football’s great taboos. Fans usually proclaim they will follow their club “till they die”, while players and managers swap clubs as if it were a game of musical chairs. This mercantilism isn’t a new phenomenon and throughout history, armies and noblemen have chopped and changed their allegiances, dictated by the opportunity of prosperity and riches.  It is a reality that exists in everyday life, people jump ship when offered a more profitable job and indeed the world of recruitment is built around this premise. However just as in football, the act of moving to a rival firm or business is still frowned upon and condemned.

For Liverpool fans and Gerrard admirers, much of the furore surrounding his imminent exit is dictated by angst. What will life be like without Stevie G? Liverpool will lose a club bastion, a player who personifies their ideals, while the Premier League loses one of its most exciting home-grown talents.  Lifelong Liverpool fan and current employee of the club, Rickie Lambert, labelled his teammate as “Mr Liverpool” while manager, Brendan Rodgers, admitted his captain would be “irreplaceable.” The most passionate of fans feel that they belong to their club while at the same time owning a portion. If you give your body and soul to something, you hope for the same in return. The Liverpool captain gave that to his club and he embodied the footballing qualities supporters so dearly desire. But this makes his departure even harder to bear. Losing such a prominent figure can be traumatic. The retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson clearly damaged Manchester United’s cohesion and efficacy and they have only recently showed signs of recovering.

But the clamour surrounding Gerrard’s departure may also tap into a broader social issue which has a contemporary pertinence, that being insecurity surrounding identity. Most people are desperate to have a clear sense of identity or in simpler terms, belonging. These are usually constructed by our social milieu, which normally includes family, peers, geographical location, nationality and social class. The economic downturn and political maelstrom in recent times has left a generation of disillusioned individuals, individuals who are desperate to feel a part of something. In this ever evolving and globalised world, it is increasingly difficult for people to map out a clear identity and in some cases this uncertainty has allowed ideological extremism to proliferate.

Football, described by ex-England international Kevin Davies as ‘too tribal’, has long provided a source of identity with clubs acting as rallying points for shared values. Unfortunately, the construction of social groups in a footballing context has also given birth to extremism in the form of hooliganism and on the continent, radical political ideology within Ultra groups.

But returning to the significance of Steven Gerrard, there is no doubt that in purely footballing terms his departure will have widespread implications for the club, its supporters and the Premier League. Love him or loathe him, there are few men who have struck balls as sweetly or governed midfields as imperiously over the last decade or so. But analysing the fallout of Gerrard’s decision in solely footballing terms is superficial. Football, sport in general, is a microcosm of society and thus the emotional reaction reflects a social trend.

Liverpool supporters, who have long been linked with the left-wing, socialist tradition within the city, immediately embraced Gerrard, a working class lad and boyhood fan of the club. His story resonates with many of those who sit in the Kop end; he grew up on the Bluebell estate in Huyton during the 1980’s, a period of austerity as the city resisted Margaret Thatcher’s reforms. Gerrard himself recently admitted had he not been playing for Liverpool, he would be watching them in the stands.  The tributes that Lambert and Rodgers paid to their captain illustrate how the clubs identity has become inextricably linked with the man. Without their emblematic leader, are Liverpool and their supporters losing a key component of their identity?

Gerrard’s departure signals change and in the eyes of many this change is unwanted. People are desperate to cling onto the halcyon days in which they grew up, in this case watching Stevie G in his iconic number eight jersey, the captains armband adorning his sleeve as he taps the ‘This Is Anfield’ sign in the tunnel before leading his red army into battle. It is a situation reflected in today’s society, one in which change is met with apprehension and uncertainty is influencing people to revert back to what they are comfortable with. Unfortunately for Liverpool, as Steven Gerrard sets off across the pond, a part of their identity will go with him. It seems identities are being redefined and not everyone is a fan.

@LH_Ramon25

12/1/13

Abuse, Heysel, Hillsborough….Where do we draw the line?

The atmosphere will be one of juvenile enthusiasm in the Juventus Stadium on Sunday night with 12,100 children expected to attend the game against Udinese. They will fill the void left by the Ultras after the Italian football association (FIGC) closed both Curva to Juventus fans who were found guilty of discriminatory chanting in their 3-0 win against Napoli last month. This prompted the club to launch the initiative “Gioca Con Me…Tifa Con Me” – “Play with me…Support with me” which has seen the stands opened to children aged 6-13 across the Piedmont region.

Having already written about the issue of territorial discrimination I was interested in Juventus coach Antonio Conte’s comments in his press conference ahead of tonight’s clash.

“There are equally serious incidents that should bring to equally strong sanctions, for example when opposition fans insult the dead at Heysel or Superga,”  

While acknowledging discrimination must be dealt with Conte was keen to point out that other abusive chants often go unpunished.

“These chants (of discrimination) are ugly and should be condemned, but so should insults towards the dead or fans who demolish the inside of stadiums.”

superga air disaster (Photo from deicinginnovations.com)

Superga air disaster which wiped out the Torino team of 1949 (Photo from deicinginnovations.com)

Conte has a point. Where do we draw the line when it comes to the nuances of abusive and discriminatory chants? While the FIGC has become embroiled in their attempts to clamp down on territorial discrimination, chants that abuse or mock football related disasters have slipped under the radar. So if its not Napoli Cholera its Torino Superga. The two Turin clubs have often been on the wrong end of chants which mock both the Superga air crash and the Heysel disaster. In fact Juventus and Torino fans can sometimes be the prime culprits!

The same can be said in England. In recent months we have seen the FA try and clarify some of the ambiguity surrounding the use of the term ‘Yid’. This has seen Tottenham fans defy both the FA and the police. Similar to the stance taken by Italian Ultras on territorial discrimination, many Spurs fans feel it is their right to chant a word which they have coined as a form of identity and defiance against those who taunt them for the clubs links with the Jewish community. It is a complex and emotive issue. Yet this does not mean other abusive chants should be ‘swept under the carpet’.

Liverpool vs. Manchester United is one of England’s most celebrated rivalries. It is a volatile fixture which has at times brought out the demon in rival fans.

Who’s that lying on the ruuunway?Who’s that lying in the snow?It’s Matt Busby and the boys, making all the fucking noise,cause they couldn’t get the aeroplane to go! 

(Liverpool fans vs Manchester United, Munich air disaster)

Ohh, I wish it could be Hillsborough everydaaaaay, where the fans start swinging and the fence begins to swaaaaaay! 
Ohh, I wish it could be hillsborough everydaaaaay,where they rob dead bodies and the fans refuse to paaaaaaay!

(Manchester United fans vs Liverpool, Hillsborough disaster)

Liverpool fans display about Hillsborough (Photo from talkchill.blogspot.com

Liverpool fans choreograph display about Hillsborough (Photo from talkchill.blogspot.com

Two such examples have been chanted in the past by what must be said, is only a minority of Liverpool and Manchester United fans. Nevertheless these are  inhumane chants which, like discrimination, have no place in the game. While we are all in accordance that football’s governing bodies must do their utmost to eradicate racism and discrimination it is important for them not to become blinkered.

When looking at the definition of discrimination these chants do not strictly fall under the blanket of unjust prejudicial treatment of people based on their race, age, sex, gender or faith. However they border on inciting irrational hatred and show a worrying lack of empathy to both the victims and families involved.

This is what Antonio Conte was touching on. While chants in Italy such as “Vesuvio Facci Sognare” – “Vesuvio make us dream” (a reference to Vesuvio volcano erupting and destroying Naples) are labelled discrimination, abusive chants about Superga and Heysel go largely unpunished.

But is there really a difference between the two? If the FIGC are going to enforce draconian punishment on territorial discrimination then they should surely consider similar measures for abusive chants regarding football related disasters. In fact given that territorial discrimination is an issue rooted in Italian history and culture, I’d argue that the FIGC would find it easier to tackle the latter.

This begs a similar question in England. Why have the FA not done more to clamp down on chants regarding Hillsborough and Munich? It is not about prioritising one issue over another, it is about preserving the integrity of the game. There is a fine line when it comes to the raucous voice of the football stadium however taunts aimed at such tragedies overstep this line.

I am by no means suggesting punishment for all abusive chants. It would not only be absurd but it would also detract from the rivalries and sprezzatura which make football atmospheres unique. But is it so ludicrous to suggest that distasteful chants about Heysel, Munich and the like should be given equal scrutiny by footballs governing bodies?