Football for Everyone?

Football is not for everyone. We do not all get an equal share of the game: some fans more than others. The red taping of the sport comes in many forms. Calling the game “soccer” makes one a second-class citizen. The soul of a season ticket holder is fundamentally purer than that of a fan who wakes up at 4:30 in the morning to watch the same match thousands of miles away.

Art by Onkar Shirsekar

We disagree with those statements. Or, at least, I hope we would. We pay lip service to the ideal of “football for everyone,” but do we practice that? If we did, an article from the Premier League entitled “Football is a game for everyone” wouldn’t be necessary. If we truly believed football is for everyone, UEFA wouldn’t feel the need to push an #EqualGame initiative. We feel the need to highlight these causes because there is an unspoken hierarchy at play.

Sometimes, however, it is spoken aloud. Last February, Franck Leboeuf and Christophe Dugarry spoke about Marcelo Bielsa during an episode of Dugarry’s radio show. The two former French internationals are not fans of the Argentine tactician, and flagged Bielsa’s non-observance of social niceties during his time as manager of Marseille. Dugarry wondered if Bielsa’s actions were “a bit autistic.”

What did Dugarry mean by that? One explanation is that he made the statement in earnest, seeking to understand one of football’s most enigmatic characters. Based on the context of the conversation though, it is more likely he was using autism as a shorthand to describe odd, un-social behaviour. Which is, simply put, unkind. Dugarry’s careless comment barely elicited a reaction though. Leeds fans seemed to be the only folks in the English speaking world to pick up on it. Indeed, I heard about it from Jon Mackenzie, a Leeds supporter and Bielsa biographer, in his newsletter (which you should subscribe to, by the way).

I suspect my experiences with autism are different from Duga’s. Exactly two years ago, my son was diagnosed with it. I spent countless hours researching to learn more about his world. I attended classes, read books on the subject, followed along at #ActuallyAutistic, and studied scientific papers well beyond my level of understanding. It continues to be one of the most important learning processes of my life. Another Frenchman, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, spoke of learning: “There are those who seek knowledge for the sake of knowledge; that is curiosity. There are those who seek knowledge to be known by others; that is vanity. There are those who seek knowledge in order to serve; that is Love.” I seek knowledge about autism because I want to be a good father to my child.

Dugarry’s observation provoked me, but probably not in the way one would expect. It did not offend me, or, at least, it did not offend me enough into making some sort of stand about it. Rather, it forced me to examine my own expectations for my son and how he would interact with the game I love. Considering the lack of conversation around autism and sports, I just figured football wouldn’t be much of an interest for him. The expectations I had of passing down my passion for the game to him were lowered because that wasn’t a “typical” interest for others with the same diagnosis. Or, if it was, it isn’t easy to find. I just assumed he would not participate in youth soccer. It seemed a given he wouldn’t be interested. It wasn’t until he started sidling up next to me while I watched Match of the Day that I realised how foolish it was make assumptions like that. He loves the show, particularly the post-match interviews. While Lineker and his colleagues break the action down, we film our own post-match interviews on my phone; he’s only been watching football a little while, but he’s already well-versed in the game’s cliches. It’s amazing how he’s able to pick up on and copy each manager’s cadence and manner of speaking. His Klopp-style interviews bring the most joy. Thanks to football, we have our own Saturday night ritual that lets us laugh and have fun together.

Mackenzie noted there was a peculiar absence of autism within sport, suggesting that we have adopted the term ‘autistic’ as “a cipher for something in order to remain silent about it.” We create these silences because we feel ashamed of our own reactions to disabilities. Maybe it’s because we don’t know what to say and don’t wish to offend. Or perhaps we are embarrassed by our discomfort around those who are different. That silence breeds shame. And that shame alienates us from one another while creating the need for ingroups and outgroups.

My goal is not to blast Dugarry. He probably has no idea the weight his words carried or how they would be received by various communities. I thought long and hard about whether to speak about my family’s experience with autism. Why share something so personal? I decided it was worth it because I want my boy to have a host of possibilities open to him. Comments from a sports radio show thousands of miles away have the power narrow my son’s world. They subtly tell him, “Football isn’t for you. You aren’t welcome here.”

That message cannot be left unchallenged. This is the Beautiful Game because it is for everyone. Few forces on this earth have more power to bring disparate personalities and backgrounds together than this silly sport. In my own life, football has allowed me to have relationships that transcend nationality, religion, and geopolitics; my appreciation, for instance, of the Turkish striker Fatih Tekke has opened doors for me in Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Russia. Football creates a sense of togetherness that allows an English writer to find belonging with a bar full strangers in Cape Town. It lets us share how we see the world with those who are different from us, and, we in turn, are able to understand theirs. How could we deny that sort of experience to others?

Marginalising others harms ourselves. We create a society, as Jean Vanier wrote, “without heart, without kindness, irrational and sad…lacking celebration, divided within itself, and given to competition, rivalry, and finally violence.” Ableism (or racism, sexism, sectarianism, etc…) deprives us of the gifts of beauty, presence, and connection.

Football lets us mourn together. Football calls us together to celebrate. Football sees us open up our home to stranded opposition fans. Football takes us to the furthest corners of the world to donate money for a sensory room and playground for autistic children. Football lets two friends share the match going experience despite deafness and blindness. Football means I can show up to a specific section of a stadium or a pub with my club colours and be greeted warmly by strangers. Football is where we can belong – all of us, and we must protect the inclusivity of our sport.