Definitive statements, infernal polemics
The FA's decision not to light the Wembley arch after the attack on Israel has led to a rethink on how and why it takes a stand. What does that say about our game and our society?
Football’s reach and the strong sense of identity and community it engenders have led to it taking positions on issues far beyond the pitch. But there’s a rethink under way, and it is one that indicates much about what we have become, and what we want to be.
The English FA is now going to review when and how it takes a position on matters that are not exclusively football. The move comes over criticism it faced for the statement it issued in the wake of Hamas’s attack on Israel. So is it time for a rethink on taking positions?
This is not just a question for football. Other businesses are finding that attempts to engage with issues considered beyond their immediate remit can lead to problems. Web Summit CEO Paddy Cosgrove had to quit this week after stating his opinion on the Middle East conflict. And in the Financial Times, a piece headlined Business in a bind over messaging on Israel-Hamas war observed “Some companies have been criticised for ‘picking a side’; others condemned for their silence.”
That last comment indicates that ‘just staying out of it’ is not an option either. What used to be a simple argument about whether “politics” had any place in football has become more complex, as the act of not acting also has political significance. So some, including some in government, who had previously argued that football should ‘stay out of politics’ now criticise it for staying out, or for not going in right. Or what they believe is right.
So it’s no wonder the FA is taking a step back to think. It had taken a battering for what had been labelled a ‘vanilla’ statement, and for not lighting up the Wembley arch in the colours of the Israeli flag.
It’s hard to see how anyone could take issue with what the FA statement said. It remembered “innocent victims”, and “all the communities affected by this ongoing conflict” and said: “We stand for humanity and an end to the death, violence, fear and suffering”. The criticism came for what it didn’t expressly say, and because of what it had done before – for example light the arch to mark an attack as it had at the time of the attacks on the Bataclan in Paris.
One of the problems in modern debate is the deployment of whataboutery. Any action taken by anyone is immediately examined in the context of previous actions – a process aided by the fact it is easier than ever to check past stances by scouring social media platforms. The trouble with this is that it doesn’t allow for situations or views to develop. This opens the door to those who like to attack anyone who takes a stance on anything as dishonest and hypocritical – and the ferocity with which that view is pursued makes it less likely that people will take a stance in future.
Why does this matter? Because if you push the view hard enough that no one is honest and everyone who takes any action is a hypocrite, you are arguing for a loss of faith in our ability to operate as a society.
Returning to the present, it is important, in my view, to remember the event that sparked the current crisis. Hamas terrorists carried out a pogram that killed more Jewish people in a single day than at any time since the Holocaust. The existential fear felt by Jewish people as a result of that may be something that it is difficult for non-Jews to feel in the same way, but it should be understood by anyone with a modicum of humanity and an understanding of history.
It happened when there was an international break that meant fewer games were going on, and when there was a gap of days before an event at Wembley Stadium. Now, it’s possible to criticise football for not speaking sooner, and many did, but once it hadn’t responded instantly, events had developed. Israel had, inevitably, responded, and now innocent people in Israel and in Gaza were dead. The statement the FA eventually made acknowledged this, and in my opinion the tone was right. Those criticising the FA, from both sides of the debate, wanted it to take sides. It was not the FA’s place to do that. Which leads to the central question in all of this.
What is the purpose of the action you are taking? It’s a question that should be first on the list of any organisation or senior figure asked to make or considering making a comment outside their immediate zone of operation. The second should be ‘What will the action I take practically achieve?’ Not having a clear answer to both of these questions risks whatever you do becoming merely a gesture, at best.
Regular readers will have picked up a left-of-centre leaning in my worldview, so it may come as a surprise to hear that I’ve been concerned for a while about the sheer number and variety of demonstrations of support football is asked to perform. I’m all for harnessing the power of community and expressing solidarity, and my response to those who bang on about “virtue signalling” is that I’d rather signal virtue than the lack of it. But football is asked to bear a heavy load.
Should football be the backdrop for quite so many ‘expressions’? And do we think enough about what they will achieve? Some years ago, while I was still chairing the Trust at the club I support, we received an email asking if we’d back people taking ‘Refugees Welcome’ flags into the ground as part of a European-wide day of solidarity with refugees. I remember my first thought being that I didn’t think too many refugees were waiting for a bunch of football fans to put a flag up, and would it better to encourage support for aid organisations?
Nonetheless, we publicised the request on our open social media channels. Which prompted a wave of abuse, most of which was from racists. But some people worried about whether a line had been crossed, whether it was appropriate or helpful to reduce such a complex issue to simply displaying a flag. The mistake we made, in agreeing to publicise the request from a member of an organisation I held a position in, was to elevate that request to a general stance on a complex issue.
It is, as the above example shows, easy to get things wrong when nuance is such an important factor. The performative nature of much debate these days, where being seen to take a position is deemed more important than trying to get to grips with it, doesn’t help when trying to negotiate the nuances. And it would help if people more often recognised that decisions they disagree with can come from people who have the right intentions but may not have expressed them as well as they could.
That happened at my club, Tottenham Hotspur, which also received fierce criticism for a statement perceived as being too vanilla, for being “both sideist” or, said some, for abandoning the significant section of support who are Jewish. Spurs are also the only Premier League club to have an Israeli player in their senior squad which, combined with the profile of the club’s Jewish support, meant it was always going to face a more challenging task than most when crafting a response.
My view is that the Spurs statement should have been more like the ones issued by Chelsea and Crystal Palace. Both specifically acknowledged the incident that sparked the current chapter in an ongoing crisis, while even-handedly opposing the deaths of all the innocent. Some will see the latter statements as “supporting Israel” – which I don’t think they do. But nor do I think Spurs “abandoned” their Jewish support as some said. I am convinced the same thoughts went through club chairman Daniel Levy’s head as went through any other Jewish person’s when news of the atrocity broke.
I am not sure how much, if any, consultation with affected communities occurred before any of those statements were issued. But talking to those likely to be most directly affected by an action usually pays off. Using the knowledge I gained from almost 10 years of trying to work with those who run Spurs I’d say it was possible that the firmly institutionalised view that they know best about everything may well have meant there was little or no consultation before the statement went out. But I also know that advice given by some behind the scenes is not always the advice given in public.
The FA have “acknowledged the hurt” caused to some in the Jewish community by its statement, but also explained its position and announced it will review how and when it speaks again. I can’t recall the board at Spurs ever apologising for anything in the 22 years since it took charge, so I won’t be holding my breath on that front. But some reflection on which stance is more likely to gain you the benefit of the doubt in future might be advisable.
The general point here is that football, and its constituent organisations, must have a clear idea of what the aim and the effects of any action will be. I would say that’s a given but experience tells me someone somewhere will decide that means I hate someone or something in a way that hasn’t actually occurred to me. But if we’re asking these questions, we also need to ask if it would be desirable if football said nothing about anything at all, apart from the game itself.
I’m not sure many would agree that it is desirable, or even possible, for football to cordon itself off from the world. But if we want football to play its part, if we want to harness its potential for positive change, then we need to be more understanding when we debate. Because, as I said above, there is a danger in creating a situation where no one steps up to try to make a difference.
Maybe someone you disagree with has the right intentions but the wrong methods; maybe one opinion doesn’t mean another; maybe ‘what about?’ isn’t helpful; maybe think about what you are comparing and why; maybe understand people can make mistakes; maybe listen as well as talk…
Maybe things can get better.