“I paid for this seat, I’m entitled to say whatever I want!”
If you’re a sports fan chances are you’ve come across this person before. The fan who mercilessly lets the rest of the stadium know his personal opinion on a particular player and won’t let sheepish looks from other supporters dissuade him from hurling as much abuse as his heart contends.
Not to say this fan is always a male, but for the most part this fan is a disgruntled male who has chosen to spend his weekends abusing professional athletes.
The fan’s defence when questioned about the aggressiveness of their criticisms usually goes along the lines of “I paid for this seat, I’m entitled to say whatever I want!”
UEFA (Union of European Football Associations) begs to differ, particularly when it comes to matters of race and ethnicity, but the fan is essentially right, they’ve paid good money to watch an event and they can spend their time there how they see fit, as long as they abide by the general laws of the country they’re in.
It’s what makes sporting events so attractive. The atmosphere, the tribalism, the freedom of expression. It’s brilliant when there’s a stirring rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone at Anfield, or I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles at Upton Park (now the Olympic Stadium), it unites and unifies in a way that only sport can, but fans can also be united through mutual hate and resentment.
It can be for an opposing player that is unpopular when he plays a certain team (El Hadji Diouf), it can be supporters towards their own team (Aston Villa, Chelsea, Leeds United…), supporters towards a manager (Louis van Gaal) or it can be towards a player who has performed poorly for his country in the eyes of its fans (David Beckham).
Beckham experienced both the highs and lows of English fandom at the 1998 World Cup when the Manchester United winger went from hero to villain after being sent off during England’s second round defeat to Argentina.
Beckham had previously booked England a place in the knockout stages after scoring a first-half free-kick during the Three Lions’ 2-0 win over Columbia in England’s final group game, but in their next game against Argentina the future England captain received a straight red from referee Kim Milton Nielsen for lashing out at Argentina midfielder and current Atletico Madrid manager Diego Simeone.
England would go on to lose the game to Argentina on penalties and the following season Beckham was booed relentlessly by fans all over England as the British public seemingly single-handedly blamed Beckham for England’s World Cup exit.
But was the abuse aimed at Beckham purely down to his dismissal against Argentina? Could it have had anything to do with the fact that he played for two-time Premier League champions Manchester United? Could it possibly have been attributed to the fact he was also dating a Spice Girl? Maybe his reputation as a ‘pretty boy’ played a factor in the fans’ venom? The point is he was a scapegoat and fans didn’t care.
Different fans had different reasons for their displeasure with Becks and while it wasn’t everyone who booed, it rarely is, those who boo took pleasure in the fact that their voice was heard. That their displeasure was known.
18 years later and English fans still have a penchant for booing players who upset them on an international stage, with Raheem Sterling now the poster boy for the English football supporters’ distaste.
In his first away game of the season following England’s Euro 2016 exit to Iceland, Sterling was booed mercilessly by Stoke City fans who hailed the player with a chorus of boos every time he touched the ball.
For the second straight season Sterling has encountered boos form opposition fans following his highly publicised £49 million move from Liverpool to Manchester City last season.
But dissimilar to Beckham, Sterling plays in a different era, an era of globalisation and the internet, which has made the 21-year-old an international symbol of football discontentment when he was pictured on the big screen during a Manchester City pre-season friendly against Melbourne FC on Australia’s Gold Coast last year.
Modern football has afforded a player of Sterling’s ability exorbitant wages but it has also brought him added criticism in a market that is completely foreign to the player.
Supporter disenchantment with Sterling stems from something more than just a poor tournament with England, for the majority of fans that boo Sterling the native Jamaican represents everything that is wrong with football.
A player that typifies selfishness and money grabbing. A player that made contract demands one season after breaking into Liverpool’s first team, a player that forced his way out of a club, a player who was accused of feigning injury to accelerate his move, a player who played out his contract battle with Liverpool publicly and a player whose agent made public statements about how the player would never play for the club again.
Loathing for Sterling was further compounded when Liverpool legends Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher both criticised the player’s handling of the situation with Gerrard claiming that Sterling “needed to act like a man” during the contract negotiations.
Sterling’s immaturity was also questioned when he was pictured smoking from a shisha pipe just 24 hours after England’s 2-0 win over Estonia during a Euro 2016 qualifier at Wembley.
For football supporters, Sterling doesn’t just represent a player who has had a poor tournament for his country, he represents a player that exemplifies the pitfalls of the modern football player.
Are fans right to boo a 21-year-old player who requested a move from one club to another? Of course not, regardless of how he spends his spare time or how he handles his business.
Sterling may keep bad counsel in terms of those who advise him, but does he deserve to be booed every time he touches the ball?
No, but fans are entitled to voice their opinion no matter how belligerent or aggressive they may be. As proven with Beckham, who went from hero to zero back to hero again, football supporters are fickle, and while the boos may continue for Sterling over the course of this season, he is still only developing as a player and his story is far from finished, boos or no boos.
Jack O’Toole, Pundit Arena
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