The Poisonous Culture of Football

It was 2 December 2012: the day that a Dutch assistant referee got kicked to death by a bunch of young football (“soccer“) players. This pitiful event started a chain reaction of discussions in the Netherlands about (the lack of) respect in football. The professional football teams wore “Respect-logos” on their shirts, and everyone of the Dutch people stood forth and yelled that it was utterly disgraceful what had happened to the man. “How could children do that? How could they kick a man to death just because of (an allegedly) wrong decision he made? Where did it all go wrong?”

I have played football myself for 14 years. I have witnessed the utter disrespect football players have for the referee. I would even dare to say that you are not a real football player if you don’t yell at the referee and tell him what a fool he is. How am I so sure about this? Well, I was one of them. I was indoctrinated by the football culture; a culture that teaches children to disrespect arbitration. But this disrespectful behavior doesn’t restrict itself towards to children’s “interactions” with the referees; it is deeply ingrained into the football culture. Children are taught by the “older and wiser” football players, which they look up to enormously (I did, at least), that you have to show that you consider yourself to be better than the others. You have to show that you feel sorry for the youngsters, the ones that aren’t as good as you. You have to show them who’s boss. But why was that again? Because that’s what everybody does! So there must be some essence of truth in it, right?

When looking back on my “amateur football career”, I feel bad and ashamed. I have been indulged in disrespectful behavior, without even knowing it. Although I have not so much yelled at referees, I have been arrogant and degrading towards younger players. And all of this came forth out of a sense of insecurity; a need for validation that I wasn’t able to fulfill in those years that I was the younger player. Because, for those who don’t know it, you are clustered by age in football: the youngsters with the youngsters, and the elder with elder. But there is always some kind of overlap between the youngsters and the elder.

My point is that you cannot blame the children playing football for their disgraceful behaviors: they simply don’t know any better. They look up to the older and “cooler” players, and simply copy their behaviors. Behaviors that are based on values like disrespecting younger players, and arrogant behavior. And those who, without even knowing it, “teach these values” to the youngsters have also learned them from the older and cooler children. It’s a chain reaction. And it is this culture that spawn all sorts of pitiful consequences, like kicking to death a referee.

What worries me the most is that there is no reason for these behaviors to restrict themselves to the football playing ground: they become part of children’s nature, of who they are. So that means that all the disrespectful football norms and values are being carried into society; into real life. And that might contribute to “the youth of these days” lacking respect, in the broadest sense of the word. And with 240 million people playing football worldwide, of which a substantive part are children, the consequences of this might be worth taking a look at.

It’s an analogy often made, the analogy between football and rugby, in order to show the difference in norms between these two cultures. I want to point you to the following article of a guy who speaks about the norms he has been indoctrinated with in his rugby career. Especially the following quote seems worth noting:

“Having played rugby for nine years of my life, I am completely indoctrinated into calling the match officials ‘Sir’ and being chastised for answering back to any decisions made. It is severely frowned upon to comment on a referee’s call, and not only will it more often than not result in a penalty against you, but the perpetrator will receive temporary animosity from the rest of his teammates.”

So it can go both ways: it doesn’t necessarily have to be a disrespectful culture that is promoted within the sport you play; it can just as well be a respectful culture. So maybe we should start doing something about it: change the core of the disrespectful football culture that by times looks more like acting (Cristiano Ronaldo? Arjen Robben?) than sport. Let’s banish these values from football and – consequently – from society. Let’s make sure that people don’t look back on their football lives and think: “shit, I’ve behaved like an asshole” (like I did). Can we do that?

What do you think?

Written by Rob Graumans

One thought on “The Poisonous Culture of Football

  1. Pingback: The Purpose of Life is to Look for a Purpose | The Young Socrates

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