Our expectations of football fans seem to be so low – has it always been like this? | Soccer

There was something moving about the entire crowd at Anfield applauding for Cristiano Ronaldo in the seventh minute on Tuesday night. The “moment of the game,” said Jürgen Klopp. “So many things are much more important in life than football.” He is right of course. It is rare when two sets of supporters – especially rivals – come together for any reason.

But when you step back and think about it, isn’t it the least we should expect? Being respectful and supportive of someone going through a personal tragedy shouldn’t be a surprising way to act. What does it say about our expectations of football fans and their extreme tribalism that this moment was viewed as a kind of zenith of human behaviour?

Our expectations are naturally low for a reason. In the same game, a section of Manchester United fans were filmed singing “The Sun was right, you’re murderersto the Liverpool fans. Three days earlier, Manchester City fans caused a minute’s silence to be truncated because they couldn’t hold back from chanting about that avoidable catastrophe.

Ace David Conn tweeted: “Football fans who disrespect the Hillsborough disaster don’t even understand that they’re just indulging lies spread by South Yorkshire police to evade responsibility for 97 people unlawfully killed.”

Those fans, at that moment, probably aren’t really thinking anything beyond goading the opposition – identical to those who’ve sung about the Munich air disaster. It’s all fair game. Forget humanity. We’re in a crowd. Everyone else is doing it. We’re (whoever) FC, we’ll sing what we like.

And fair play if you can find a set of fans who haven’t chanted or done something grim in their recent history. desde Chelsea fans singing Roman Abramovich’s name during a tribute to Ukraine in Burnley for the racist abuse experienced by fans and players from the Premier League all the way down the pyramid.

A few months ago we did a Guardian Football Weekly podcast on the female experience of football and it was pretty depressing to hear how misogyny still pervades the game. There’s also increasing reports of class A drug use and more fans are being arrested.

Has it always been like this? Anyone who followed football in the 80s knows it was bad. But was there a halcyon post-hooliganism/pre-social media age where football was a place of joy and mutual respect?

Cristiano Ronaldo has thanked the Anfield crowd for their show of compassion after the death of his newborn son. A fan-led minute’s applause was held during Tuesday’s Premier League game between Liverpool and Manchester United, which Ronaldo missed to be with his family.

Ronaldo wrote on Instagram: “One world… One sport… One global family… Thanks, Anfield. Me and my family will never forget this moment of respect and compassion.” Ronaldo added three hands-praying emojis alongside a video of the Anfield crowd applauding in the seventh minute – his shirt number.

The 37-year-old, who has four older children, announced last October that he and his partner, Georgina Rodríguez, were expecting twins. Their baby girl survived. PA Media

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Ronaldo thanks Anfield crowd

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Cristiano Ronaldo has thanked the Anfield crowd for their show of compassion after the death of his newborn son. A fan-led minute’s applause was held during Tuesday’s Premier League game between Liverpool and Manchester United, which Ronaldo missed to be with his family from him.

Ronaldo wrote on Instagram: “One world… One sport… One global family… Thanks, Anfield. Me and my family will never forget this moment of respect and compassion.” Ronaldo added three hands-praying emojis alongside a video of the Anfield crowd applauding in the seventh minute – his shirt number.

The 37-year-old, who has four older children, announced last October that he and his partner, Georgina Rodríguez, were expecting twins. Their baby girl survived. BP Mean

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In the 90s I remember my first visit to White Hart Lane, seeing a Spurs fan yell the N-word at his own player for missing a chance and another fan punching a Liverpool fan outside the ground in the face, knocking him to the floor and just stringing off. As a fan I witnessed so much racism and naked aggression from England fans at the 2006 World Cup in Germany that I vowed never to follow the national team abroad again. That Trinidad and Tobago game will be etched on my mind for ever.

Has social media made it worse or just brought it to our attention? Fifteen years ago, we wouldn’t have seen the footage of Manchester United fans chanting at Anfield. Twenty years ago, black players would not have been racially abused directly to their Nokia 8210s after a game.

The two teams line up for a minute's silence to remember the Hillsborough victims before the FA Cup semi-final match between Manchester City and Liverpool
The two teams line up for a minute’s silence to remember the Hillsborough victims before the FA Cup semi-final match between Manchester City and Liverpool. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

But there are two important counter points. First, it’s quite possible if not to avoid this behaviour, but to ignore it and enjoy the matchday experience – hundreds of thousands do every week. It doesn’t excuse what’s happening, but there are countless good people doing good things in the game who deserve coverage more than those singing songs that trivialize death.

Second, perhaps I’m forgetting what it’s like to be a 17-year-old on the terraces. I routinely told opposition goalkeepers where to go from my spot behind the goal on the North Terrace at the Abbey Stadium. It felt pantomime. I’m embarrassed to say I joined in with songs at northern opposition about signing on. Such was my privilege I didn’t really know what signing on was in 1996.

Who didn’t love a round of “In your ‘boro slums” to Peterborough fans? I don’t recall singing sexist songs, but I heard them and I’d be surprised if I didn’t join in. I certainly didn’t call anything out. It was just noise. I gave it no thought. I sang without malice, if that’s possible. But I sang all the same, things I’d never dream of saying out loud to anyone, anywhere else.

So should I judge a 17-year-old doing the same thing now any differently? It is easier to be informed today – every second of every day is a constant scroll of information. Language and attitudes have rightly changed in the past 25 years towards race, gender, sexuality, everything. Perhaps I’m the only hypocrite.

But despite the unpleasantness so many other sports dream of the atmosphere football brings. Can you retain the fervor and take away the worst parts? Unfurl a banner that reads “Welcome to hell. Btw it’s just words, we don’t really mean it lol.”

Too often these groups are called a “tiny minority” or “not proper football fans”. They may not speak for the majority, but we need to acknowledge that some unpleasant people really like football. They exist on every terrace, in every stand, following every side’s Twitter account on the planet. It’s not about which team has the worst fans. It’s not about getting defensive to protect yours. This only stops if fans call their own out.

There is a line. The Hillsborough songs cross it. Identify those doing it if you can and ban them. But once we work out exactly where that line is perhaps we just ignore the rest. Some of the teenagers will grow up, reaching those that haven’t or don’t feel like an impossible task.

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