SPORTS

The tabloid season

English soccer’s year of living scandalously

BRUCE WALLACE June 5 1995
SPORTS

The tabloid season

English soccer’s year of living scandalously

BRUCE WALLACE June 5 1995

The tabloid season

SPORTS

English soccer’s year of living scandalously

It takes some doing to blacken the already puffy eye of English soccer, but the just-concluded season did the trick. Soccer’s “Season of shame,” they are calling it in English sporting circles, or alternatively, “The year football went mad.” But this time, the troubles were not the product of hooliganism, that notorious “English disease” that turns soccer games into little more than assembly points for riots (although there was some of that this season,

too). No, North American sports fans will feel right at home reading about what ailed English football this year: a sudden flood of money; rich players with cocaine up their noses or their feet in fans’ faces; greedy owners driving up ticket prices and forcing workingclass fans out of the stadiums; and a host of spectacular allegations involving payoffs to player agents, and game fixing. In other words, very little to do with what happened on the field, where, by the way, surprising Everton took the FA Cup, English football’s showcase event.

Consider a selection from this year’s catalogue of scandal:

• Temperamental Frenchman Eric Cantona, arguably the English league’s best player, is ejected from a game and responds to a fan’s taunts by launching himself, feetfirst, at the heckler. The league not only suspends Cantona until next October for the karate kick, but the British courts sentence him to do community service after a twoweek jail term is overturned on appeal. The fan, who maintains that he only yelled, “Well

then, it’s an early shower for you, my fine French friend,” still awaits trial for allegedly provoking the incident.

• Police swoop in at dawn to pick up Southampton goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar and two other players for questioning over allegations that they conspired with a betting syndicate to fix games. Grobbelaar, a onetime star with the Vancouver Whitecaps of the North American Soccer League, keeps playing while the investigation continues, in-

spiring opposition fans to greet his arrival in goal at the start of games by chanting: “Bruce, Bruce, tell us the score.”

• George Graham, Arsenal’s most successful manager of the past half-century, is fired after it emerges that he accepted more than $900,000 from a player agent following his club’s signing of two Scandinavian stars, both represented by that agent. Graham, who deposited the money into two offshore bank accounts, denied taking kickbacks, and suggested that the payments came from the agent solely “as a mark of his gratitude.” The league fears the practice is commonplace and has widened its investigation.

• Standing tall amid the litany of players charged with assault (including one, Dennis Wise, who shredded the interior of a taxi cab) is Everton’s bruising six-foot, four-inch Duncan Ferguson, whose life, on and off the field, appears to be unmitigated bedlam. Already banned from the roads after two drunk driving offences—not for nothing is his nickname “Duncan Disorderly”— Ferguson was convicted of head-butting an

opponent and last week was sentenced to three months in jail.

“It’s been a fun season to cover," concedes Daily Express soccer writer Steve Curry. “A bit unsavory at times, but always fascinating.” Not for the quality of the soccer, of course. Continental Europeans continue to sneer at the head-banging style of English football, which relies on a straight-ahead, all-out running game in contrast to the European attraction to athletic artistry and sophisticated tactics. But at least the English game’s controversies had everyone talking this year and, while some commentators moaned

about the tarnished moral state of English football, many others argue that a little extra drama never hurt. “Each revelation left you gasping for more,” says author Nick Hornby, whose literate 1992 best-seller, Fever Fitch, is credited with providing an aura of cultural legitimacy to soccer. “You do get worried at times,” acknowledges Graham Kelly, the Football Association chief executive. “But we certainly do want color and joy and excitement in the game.”

In fact, English football has come a long way from its soriy state in the late 1980s, when a series of deadly “fan” riots left the game in ill-repute and English clubs temporarily banned from playing overseas. Attendance has climbed by more than 25 per cent in the 1990s, a period that some say has seen the “yuppification” of the sport. “There is no doubt that football has become trendy,” says Paul Simpson, editor of FourFourTwo, a new soccer magazine devot-

ed to the literate fan. Sagging stadiums have been refurbished with corporate boxes, just as the standing-room-only terraces—which had been petri dishes for violence—came down. Meanwhile, the creation of the Premier League in 1992, with its five-year, $550-million TV contract, has brought freespending owners and unprecedented wealth to English football, allowing teams to import talented foreign stars.

Some bad old instincts remain. There was the February night in Dublin when English agitators hurled torn-up seats at Irish police and forced cancellation of an international

exhibition match. Xenophobia and racism are still integral to fan behavior; English supporters in Paris for a European championship game last month got into the VE-Day spirit with the taunt, “If it weren’t for the English you’d be Krauts,” sung to the tune of She’ll Be Cornin’ Around the Mountain. But there was hope, too, at the north London grounds of the Tottenham Hotspur, where a surprising affection grew between fans and their German striker, Jurgen Klinsmann. England has never been fond of German players, and Tottenham—which has a large Jewish following who call themselves the Yid Army— was an unlikely choice for Klinsmann. But the German played hard all year and won over the fans. Unfortunately for English football, one tabloid season was enough. Next year, Klinsmann goes back to play in Germany.

BRUCE WALLACE in London