There is a video on the internet, titled The horribly slow murderer with the extremely inefficient weapon, that shows a hooded assailant stalking, chasing, and beating an innocent man. He follows the man like a shadow, waiting for any opportunity to pounce with his weapon of choice – a steel spoon. After days and weeks of hitting the spoon awkwardly all over his body, he finally kills the victim.
The video is clearly made in jest, but in the seconds between closing the browser tab or switching to the next video, you wonder for a second about the distance between its premise and plausible reality should the events translate. A spoon – as the video title suggests – seems innocuous, but if you are relentlessly attacked with it, at some point your muscles are bound to swell and your bones will ache.
On Sunday night, Granit Xhaka’s mind gave way. Jeered and booed by the Arsenal home crowd once his number came up on the substitution board, the club captain threw his armband away to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, hurled the proverbial pleasantries at the supporters, and walked away in a huff, taking off his shirt in disgust on his way to the dressing room. The video gets worse every time you watch it, and the camera angle – carefully focussed on Xhaka – does very little for objectivity. The commentary slides in like a knife to his back – “It’s not good from Xhaka.”
Twitter immediately burst into flames; Troopz, a regular at the megaphone of outrage, sensationalisation, and poor fan behaviour known as Arsenal FanTv, screamed “Fuck Xhaka. I swear, if Emery gives him the armband again..”. On being asked by the host if the fans are at all culpable for drawing that reaction out of Xhaka, he cited the money an average fan pays for a ticket as the license to show their frustration towards the captain of one of England’s biggest and most illustrious football clubs.
Troopz – with his tone and decibel – does a terrible job of airing an opinion, but reading between the lines, his views aren’t baseless. Fans are entitled to their opinion and it’s easy to understand how a majority of them see their reaction on Sunday as completely harmless. Arsenal are going through tough times and Granit Xhaka isn’t a shining beacon of technical ability or leadership. He is admittedly more prone to errors than most stadium going fans, holding on to the nostalgia of Adams, Vieira, and Henry, associate with their leader, and hence, doesn’t get the leverage that Aubameyang or Ozil would. In their eyes, Xhaka has earned every ounce of criticism he has copped and no professional footballer should ever react to the crowd the way he did. On both counts, they are only partly right.
Fans criticising a player has never been a problem. Granit Xhaka plays football at the highest level, and it is safe to assume he has experienced his share of public failures to get to where he is today. Almost every athlete at this level knows how to deal with mass anger – you wouldn’t last a week at a club like Arsenal if you didn’t. The issue arises when the criticism crosses over to something more cynical, repetitive, and vengeful.
Elite sport, in today’s breathless, high-stakes form, gets lonely and claustrophobic when the people who you expect to have your back, to be your 12th man, turn into your harassers. Professional athletes crave to be treated as normal humans with the same kind of qualities and vulnerabilities as anybody else. Granit Xhaka, regardless of his ability with a football, has done nothing to be told every week that he is useless.
For Troopz and a majority of public fandom, heroes and stars are disposable. The armband that Xhaka wears today will be worn by another expensive signing tomorrow and all their anger, elation, and frustrations will then be easily redirected. If Emirates can boo Arsene Wenger, if the Wankhede Stadium can boo Sachin Tendulkar, what chance does a Swiss import like Xhaka really have?
The entire point of any public performance is to draw emotion out of the audience. The intensity that English football is famous for stretches far beyond the pitch. The stadium-going fans and overseas supporters are as crucial to making the Premier League a spectacle to follow as the twenty and a few men who wear the crest every season. Fans are bound to have opinions, and a stadium is one of the few places where their collective voice can physically reach players. Just like it would be cruel to expect them to reign their emotions in, the fans themselves need a regular reminder that the players aren’t simulations created by EA Sports’ Frostbite Engine. They are men of flesh and blood, and if the guy standing next to you at the stadium will not tolerate constant haranguing, chances are, Arsenal’s club captain won’t either.
The line between sensitive frustration and classless harassment is a thin one, but it’s thick enough to be able to choose for yourself which side you want to walk on.