Time to address prejudice in football
As I flew out to Scandinavia in June 2009, I read a preview of England's European Under 21 Championship final against Germany in Malmo.
It talked of the great new era in English football. Theo Walcott was the next big thing. But it hasn't really happened, has it?
England were well and truly outplayed as a Germany side inspired by the magic of Mesut Ozil stormed to a 4-0 win. Ozil was world class, and made Walcott look like a passenger. England's finest? Hmmm, a long long way to go then.
But that isn't the point of this story. There was a sub-plot you won't have heard of. An individual incident, or rather an incident that kept being repeated, that highlighted everything that is wrong with football in England.
I was embarrassed.
As an England fan who wants to see his country do well but accepts that we are just not good enough and that nothing will change until something radical happens to improve basics such as technique at a young age (so, possibly never then), I also marvel in all things football. For me, the greatest pleasure was watching Ozil.
But, as an England fan, I also cringed at what I was witnessing in front of me. No wonder stereotypes still exist about English fans.
The atmosphere in the new Malmo stadium was fantastic. Warm, relaxed. But, clearly, it was not acceptable for four so-called England 'fans' a few rows in front of me.
The spectators were enjoying themselves with a Mexican wave. But, every time the Mexican wave went around the stadium, the ringleader of this particular group of so-called English football supporters stuck his arm out and made an obscene gesture. You can probably work out what it was. And yes, this one person, taking on everyone in the stadium with his opinion. There was only one person who fitted the description of what he was accusing everyone else in the stadium of, and it wasn't any of the people he was aiming his obscene gesture at.
Well, that's not quite accurate. He was the ringleader, but his three mates were joining in.
It made me wonder, what a coincidence that his three pals all thought exactly the same as him, that all of these people enjoying themselves at a football match were in some way deserving of this obscene gesture.
And therein lies the problem with English football culture. As in life, but so readily highlighted in football, the sheep mentality. Follow the flock. How sad that peer pressure had bamboozled ringleader's three mates into copying him. How sad that they are so desperate to fit in.
Strike at the heart of the problem
This is where we need to go with tackling issues such as racism and homophobia in football. Strike at the heart of the problem. Peer pressure is powerful.
It was an interesting insight into human psychology. Clearly, the three 'gang' members were keen to fit in and be accepted within the group. There is a defence mechanism built in to all of us, a fear of not conforming. Long before these civilised times we live in now, the fear of not fitting in with a tribe was well founded, your very survival could depend on it.
All very philosophical, of course. As for the (possibly Swedish) fans sitting to my left observing this nonsense, they merely found it all quite amusing.
But football has moved forward. Mesut Ozil, hardly a 'typical' old fashioned German name, has been embraced by the nation, and the same situation is true of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, not from Swedish origins but born in Sweden and a hero for the nation.
Racism is still a problem in football but things are improving, despite Sepp Blatter's best attempts to derail the process.
But some fans remain very confused about their thoughts on racism. Booing an opposition player because of the colour of his skin, then celebrating a goal scored by a black player wearing the colours of the team he supports.
And, sometimes, it just comes down to the fact that some people are ignorant, and a bit stupid.
By Mark Roach