Following Rio Ferdinand’s withdrawal from the England squad, this country has shown a bizarre overreaction, both in the media and by fans. Rio’s back troubles meant he went through a phase of playing a handful of games of season but over the past couple of years the medical team at United has managed to keep our defender in good condition, thanks to a strict regime.
Playing 180 minutes for England during this two week period was not part of Rio’s regime so the club put pressure on him to pull out of the squad. When he flew to Qatar the press erupted with criticism, as if commentating on the game in Doha was comparable with him playing two games of football. Roy Hodgson was suckered in to it all, seemingly going back on his assertion that Rio would be picked again in the future. After initially saying he was “looking forward to hopefully selecting Rio for squads in the future”, Hodgson said “we should just wait and see” when asking about Rio’s future after the Qatar story made the news.
England fans reacted angrily to Rio’s decision (in all likelihood, which was actually the club’s decision) and sang about him in both games. “Fuck off, Rio Ferdinand, fuck off, Rio Ferdinand” was audibly heard but there have been reports since that they also sang “Rio Ferdinand, you know what you are” and “build a bonfire, build a bonfire, put Rio on the top, put Anton in the middle and we’ll burn the fucking lot.”
After the game, Hodgson admitted that he heard the chants but refused to condemn the fans for singing them. “Of course I heard it. I’m not deaf,” he said. “But I’ve absolutely no comment to make on it.”
England captain, Steven Gerrard, echoed this sentiment, saying: “I think the fans have shown their frustration about Rio not being here. They’re entitled to their opinion.”
England fans have today been reported to FIFA by Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE) and their spokesperson said: “It refers to the racist abuse Rio Ferdinand received, along with his brother Anton. We don’t make the judgement. We send a report to FIFA but in the end its their decision whether they open proceedings or not. And whether they issue a fine or not.”
Were these chants racist though? Only the people singing them know that. A few months ago we were told that when we were singing about Liverpool being victims that we were singing about Hillsborough. It suited the media’s agenda at the time so they decided that all of Old Trafford were singing about a tragedy that took the lives of 96 people and ignored the actual reasons behind the chant. It is because of this that I feel reluctant to claim that the travelling England fans over the past week were racially abusing Rio.
Imagine Gary Neville had withdrawn from the squad back in the day. If the England fans were offended by that, would they sing about throwing brother Phil in to the bonfire too? Possibly/probably. The fact that John Terry racially abused Anton doesn’t necessarily mean that England fans venting about Rio were also racially abusing the Ferdinands.
However, Anton has never played for England, so you can argue it’s suspicious he got dragged in to it. Also, the “you know what you are” chant has strong connotations with racism, given that Chelsea fans sung in to Anton Ferdinand in response to the song being sung about Terry. In response to the claim that Terry knew what he was, a racist, was the suggestion that Anton knew what he was too, a “black cunt”. Of course, this is all presumptuous, but whatever those Chelsea fans meant, and whatever the reason behind England fans singing the same to Rio, it’s hard to argue that these categorically aren’t racist chants. There’s the strong possibility that some fans in the crowd did intend there to be racist connotations, whilst it’s just as likely that some fans were just enjoying giving Rio stick because they don’t like him and he plays for United. Let’s be honest, it wouldn’t be the first time.
“Phil and I went straight out to have a look at the Wembley pitch and were greeted by a chorus of ‘Stand Up If You Hate Man U’,” said Gary Neville in 1998. “We’ve had this abuse before playing for England, but over the last year it’s got worse.”
The biggest culprit in this ridiculous situation is the media though, who turned the non-story of Rio continuing with his plans to go to Qatar in scheduled time off in to an accusation that he had deserted his country. Even if you ignore the fact that Rio actually wanted to play, the amount of column inches that were filled with suggestions that his international career should be over and that he jilted England was totally over the top. They unnecessarily whipped these moronic England fans up in to a frenzy, leading them to believe they had justification for abusing Rio, when essentially nothing had actually happened. Players pull out of England duty all the time and then play in the following game for their club, yet they get no stick from the fans, but then, unlike this situation with Rio, the papers don’t spend days telling the fans that those players have done something wrong.
If FIFA do find the England fans guilty though, it will certainly put the England manager and captain in hot water, given that neither had any objections to those chants being sung…