Soccer Isn’t Blameless in Its Culture of Abuse

This time, it was Yan Dhanda. A few days ago, it was Axel Tuanzebe and Anthony Martial. Before that, it had been Alex Jankewitz and Romaine Sawyers. It happened to Lauren James, and to her brother, Reece, too. So pernicious, so constant is soccer’s problem with racist abuse that it is, at times, hard to keep up.

Almost all of these cases echo what Dhanda experienced on Wednesday night: The names and the details can be changed, but the themes are the same.

That evening, the 22-year-old Dhanda played for his team, Swansea City, in an F.A. Cup match against Manchester City. Swansea lost, 3-1. After the game, Dhanda checked his Instagram account. And there, waiting for him, was a racist, abusive private message.

The incident was reported to the South Wales police. Both Swansea and Manchester City condemned the abuse, and pledged to aid the investigation. Various voices from within soccer offered their sympathy and support for Dhanda, one of only a handful of players of South Asian descent at the highest level of the game.

This is what happens, every single time. Sometimes, the target of the abuse is sufficiently high profile that it catches the public’s attention. Sometimes, the player is not. Sometimes the news media calls for action. Sometimes, it does not. Sometimes, the culprit is charged or punished. Sometimes, they are not.

That these incidents keep coming — there will be another this weekend, and the weekend after that, and on and on, the sport sinking ever lower but somehow never finding the bottom — is abundant proof that following the same playbook is no longer enough. All of the club statements and official condemnations and well-meaning hashtags do nothing whatsoever to stanch the flow of abuse.

A sense of soccer’s powerlessness is, slowly, dawning on the sport. The game’s authorities in England — and across Europe — have launched and relaunched various campaigns in recent months, an attempt to demonstrate, particularly in the aftermath of last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, that this is an issue they are taking seriously.

This week, they went a step further. In a letter signed by representatives of the Premier League, the Football League, the Football Association, the bodies representing players, coaches and referees, as well as the anti-discrimination charity Kick It Out, and sent to Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey, the chief executives of Facebook and Twitter, soccer’s power brokers called on the social media giants to “take responsibility” for the hatred published on their platforms.

They were right to do so. Soccer is not the first, or by any means the most important, field of human endeavor that has found social media companies troublingly slow, if not downright unwilling, to take on both the promulgation of hate speech and some liability for the toxic content their forums enable.

Twitter and Facebook — the owner of Instagram — are not merely the stages on which this battle is being fought; they are, inadvertently or not, helping to arm one side. What they could do is, perhaps, more complex than it might first appear; abandoning the right to anonymity, for example, could prove disastrous for those who rely on it to express opposition to oppressive regimes around the globe. But the companies have the capacity to block accounts, to filter content, to more readily share the data of offenders with the police. It is not too ambitious to ask them to do something.

And yet there is an irony in soccer’s appeal to Silicon Valley. Social media has, for years, abdicated its responsibility for policing even the most discriminatory content by claiming — effectively — that it is the conduit, not the source. Racism, in that line of thinking, is not a social media problem; it is a societal one. It is precisely the same comforting logic that soccer has used for so long to excuse its own inaction.

Racism is, of course, not just a problem in soccer, just as it is not merely a problem on social media. There is not something unique in soccer fans that makes them more prone to racism. Soccer fans are just people — same as people who like gardening or “Star Trek” or cats — and as long as some people are racist, some soccer fans will be.

The same is true of social media users, and yet in neither case does that quite tell the whole story. In the case of social media, it is not just that the anonymity of the screen gives free rein to users who wish to spread their sincere and repulsive hatred, but that its timbre incentivizes the breaking of taboos: edgelords seeking clout by saying the unsayable.

It is the same for-the-lulz culture that gave the internet message board 4Chan such an outsize influence on our political and cultural lives; it created the sense, as Amanda Mull put it in The Atlantic — in a piece, oddly, about viral videos of disgusting foods — that “everything on the internet is a joke until it’s not anymore.”

In the case of soccer, it is not that the sport itself is a magnet for racists. It is that it provides rich soil in which all sorts of weeds can grow.

Its inherent tribalism can generate passion, loyalty and love, but it also gives root to hatred, anger and despair. At a time when Britain has a prime minister whose past use of racist language did not prevent his rise to the nation’s highest office, when the country has spent five long years in a culture war stoked by anti-immigrant sentiment, and when the population has spent months locked indoors, growing frustrated and afraid, it is perhaps a sad inevitability that soccer should be the vent for people’s darkest, angriest thoughts.

But if that sounds as if it is absolving soccer of blame — a reiteration of the idea that racism is a societal problem, not a sporting one — it is not. Soccer might not be able to solve racism, but it can certainly address the more general culture of abuse it has not just allowed to fester, but also been actively complicit in cultivating, for decades.

Mike Dean, one of England’s most experienced — and therefore least popular — referees, will not take charge of a game this weekend. He has asked to be excused from Premier League duty after his family received death threats on their private social media accounts after his decision to send off West Ham’s Tomas Soucek in the dying minutes of a draw with Fulham last week. (Those threats, too, have been reported to the police.)

There is a connection here to the racism experienced by Dhanda, Sawyers, James and the countless others, just as there is to the sexist abuse directed at the former England international Karen Carney by Leeds United fans for daring to venture an opinion with which they happened to disagree.

The link is that soccer indulges and, at times, even directs abuse. It can be obvious — the official Leeds Twitter account, and then the club’s owner, drew its fans’ attention to Carney’s comments in what was a fairly brazen attempt to gather the pitchforks — or it can be more subtle.

All those times managers pin the blame for defeat on a referee’s marginal call. All those times fans single out a player as solely responsible for disappointment. All those times the news media declares a club that has lost a couple of games to be in crisis, all those clickbait headlines and opinions designed specifically to provoke, all those hate-reads: They are not death threats, and they are not racist abuse, but they help to sustain the environment in which such threats thrive.

It is here that soccer is responsible, here that soccer — and the industry that surrounds it, of which, yes, we as journalists and consumers are a part — has some agency. It is right for soccer to contact the social media giants. It is right for it to redouble its efforts to convey a lack of tolerance for racism, sexism or death threats against referees.

But to give it all the best chance of working, the sport must also seek to lower its own internal temperature a little, to be conscious of the roads it allows itself to be drawn down, to ask if it is necessary to treat defeat as disaster, if it could do a little more to inculcate a healthier environment, if it must continue to accept abuse as the dark consequence of passion.

It is barely a movement. It is not a feint, not really: just the slightest hint of one. A quick, hardly perceptible twitch of Bruno Fernandes’s body was enough to make Tom Davies shift, an inch or two, no more, to his right. A beat before, Everton’s defense had blocked off all of the paths, all of the channels. And now, all of a sudden, Fernandes had all the space in the world.

No player in the Premier League has an attacking output quite so impressive as Fernandes, Manchester United’s slow-burn talisman: Combine goals and assists and chances created and key passes played, and Fernandes is the most effective creative player in England. His team, it should be no surprise, has scored more goals than any other in the top division, too.

His wonderful goal in last weekend’s 3-3 draw with Everton offered, perhaps, a clear example of the relationship between those two things. It is not just the fact that Fernandes is sufficiently talented that he could try it — his execution was brilliant, the artful curve and dip of his shot, carrying it up and over and past Robin Olsen, the Everton goalkeeper — but the fact that he did try it.

There is a dogma in modern soccer that actively discourages shooting from range. It is, in the current, data-suffused thinking, deeply inefficient. Players are encouraged to work the ball relentlessly into the most promising areas: If no gap for a killer pass appears, it is better to turn around, go backward, choose another angle of attack. Patience is pre-eminent. Trying your luck from distance is seen as the final resort, a last refuge for the damned.

None of that is wrong, but it does ignore one simple — but crucial — truth of the game. Against a well-organized defense (which is, these days, most of them), a team cannot always wait to find gaps; it has to create them, too. They appear when a defensive line is drawn from its shape. And, at the risk of oversimplifying, the traditional way of doing that is to coax a player into breaking ranks to close someone down.

A refusal to shoot from range, then, creates a checkmate. The defending team has no reason to break its shape, because it knows the attacking team does not want to shoot from distance. The attacking team does not want to shoot from distance, so finds that gaps tend not to appear.

Fernandes — and to some extent his teammate, Paul Pogba — proves that it is worth indulging the inefficiency. Not simply because they are talented enough to make those shots count, but because the very prospect of those shots forces opponents into action. Davies had to close down Fernandes to stop him from shooting. And in that moment, the line broke, and all of a sudden, Fernandes had all the space in the world.

It is hard to pick the best example to encapsulate the absurdity of it all. It feels, at the moment, as if it is probably the fact that Atlético Madrid will travel farther for its “home” leg of its Champions League round-of-16 match against Chelsea — to be held in Bucharest, Romania — than it will for the “away” leg, currently scheduled for London.

But that could be superseded in the next few days, according to The Times of London, by RB Leipzig’s meeting Liverpool in the Hungarian capital, Budapest, for its home leg and then, three weeks later, playing the return leg in … the Hungarian capital, Budapest.

It was inevitable, really, that at some point the coronavirus-related travel restrictions that entangle Europe would catch up with soccer’s pan-continental competitions. In a way, it is encouraging that at this point it is only the games involving English teams that are affected. (Arsenal’s trip to Benfica has been rerouted to Rome, Manchester United’s visit to Real Sociedad is now a journey to Turin, and Manchester City will play Borussia Monchengladbach in Budapest, at least once.)

This raises several pertinent questions. First, how can you justifiably apply the away goals rule if nobody is really at home? Second, does this not impact the integrity of the competition? And third — a recurring theme, where soccer’s response to the pandemic is concerned — did nobody stop and think about this stuff before it happened?

It is too late, not to mention too expensive, to consider an alternative format for both the Champions League and the Europa League, similar to the one-and-done tournaments in Portugal and Germany last summer, but it is hard to avoid the suspicion that would have been the sensible approach to take in the circumstances.

Both competitions will endure, rolling with the punches as best they can, testament to soccer’s indefatigable determination just to keep on going. But the more complex they become, the more Byzantine and contorted the measures required to keep them on the road have to be, the more you wonder if it is worth it.

The issue of identity — and the idea of a soccer club standing for something — seems to have touched a nerve. Benjamin Livingston cited the extremely pertinent example of West Ham, a club with a proud tradition of playing in a certain way but currently enjoying its best season in years thanks, in part, to a style that deviates (a little) from that.

“It’s not that I think they’re playing bad football,” he wrote, “but it’s funny how no one seems to talk about the ‘West Ham Way’ when they’re doing well. I think most fans just want to win games.”

That is true, of course: Victory masks quite a lot of sins (not that West Ham is guilty of sinning). But not always, and not forever, as Fernando Gama neatly encapsulated. “A single loss can wreak havoc if there’s no playing style,” he wrote, citing an example that in no way exposes anyone to one of the fiercest, most deep-rooted enmities in sports.

“Boca Juniors has won the two [Argentine] national tournaments in 2020. River Plate has won none. Yet Boca has been constantly facing upheaval, divisiveness and infighting. The fans are always discontent, and the ex-players in charge of the football section of the club at war with the players. There are many reasons for that, but I believe most of it is down to the lack of a clear philosophy.”

“Not even winning championships can stabilize a club without one,” he continued. “A single game can completely destroy the club. Having an identity seems to be not only a good thing to cushion defeats, but has become also important enough to be on equal terms (at least) to winning championships.”

This is the point I wanted to make last week, but could not quite reach. As a consequence, I believe I now have to hand control of this newsletter over to Fernando. It’s been a good run.

Andrew Russell, meanwhile, raises an important question. “Even after watching the Amazon series on Leeds and Manchester City, it is not clear to me how anyone would explain the respective philosophies of Marcelo Bielsa and Pep Guardiola. How is an ordinary fan to know which philosophies are effective, or even profound, and which are hand-waving and hot air?”

It is, admittedly, hard to tell. I wonder if, to some extent, the proof of the pudding is in the eating: Does the team have an identifiable, characteristic style? But maybe, in a way, it doesn’t matter too much. The key thing with a philosophy is that the fans can believe in it, in a way that they can’t with, say, José Mourinho’s approach — he has a “distinct” philosophy, too, as Sam Clark mentioned, but one that fans do not appreciate.

That is, in part, because of its inherent caution, but also — to refer back to Fernando — because it is innately utilitarian: Mourinho’s style looks to results for validation, and therefore is exposed as soon as results turn.