By Zach Bigalke
For the first time since the formation of the English Premier League in 1992, a match has been delayed due to public unrest. The first day of the EPL season commenced Saturday without Tottenham or Everton, as continued rioting in the capital city led to the postponement of the match at White Hart Lane.
Rioting around the North London stadium stemmed from the police shooting of local man Mark Duggan near the grounds during a peaceful protest last week. Once shots were fired, the protest quickly became violent and escalated around the city and the country as citizens began looting and rioting in the aftermath.
The chaos had already led to the cancellation of the friendly between England and the Netherlands, which was scheduled at Wembley Stadium earlier in the week. Throughout the week leading up to the opening Saturday of the EPL season, as police struggled to use their inadequate numbers to quell the situation, the question which loomed was whether soccer would be sidelined.
Ultimately the games would go on around most of England, but around Tottenham the situation on the ground was still too unsettled to justify the commencement of the match between Spurs and Everton. As matches concluded in Liverpool and Blackburn and Newcastle, White Hart Lane remained shuttered and unoccupied.
It was a shrewd move, putting the safety of the general public ahead of profits. This wasn’t a matter of hooliganism but something deeper ingrained. Until the government can get to the root of the unrest, providing a traditional venue for unleashing ire that has only in recent decades been cleaned up of that hooligan spirit would be foolhardy in the zones of hottest contention.
Of course, the provocations were hardly relegated to a position outside the stadium doors across the country. The poster boy for this style of play was Newcastle’s firestarter, Joey Barton, egging Arsenal’s squad into one bonehead escalation after another. He would fail in getting Alex Song sent off after the Gunners’ midfielder stomped on him. Gervinho would not be so lucky, responding to a heated altercation in the 78th minute with an open hand that was sold well-enough by Barton for the referee to pull out red.
Barton, the 28-year-old veteran, is precisely the type of young British male we are witnessing as the provocateurs of the riots around the country. If he were not playing soccer professionally, it would be easy to envision him right in the middle of the melees.
In May 2007 his skirmish with then-Manchester City teammate Ousmane Dabo led to a four-month suspended assault charge and a violent conduct charge from the FA. A year later he was charged again after a fracas outside a McDonald’s in Liverpool. That time he would spend 77 days of his six-month sentence behind bars.
The problem in England is not soccer. The problem is a deepening chasm between the country’s power base and its disenfranchised next generation. The young men who led to the cancellation of Tottenham’s home opener are no different from the hotheads entertaining fans on the nation’s pitches. Ultimately that lust for provocation is no less strong on the field or outside the stadium.
Eventually the violence will subside. The games will sooner or later go on in North London. But until the underlying causes of the disenfranchisement are curbed, the aggressiveness of the country’s youth will not be confined to the soccer machinations of players like Barton. When the foundation of civility is crumbling, not even the wallpaper of sport can keep society’s house standing solidly forever.
And yet it is that combination of civility on the surface and the more animal spirit bubbling underneath which has marked English soccer throughout its entirety. Even as the game has become more cosmopolitan, it is players like Barton that perpetuate that spirit. It is a spirit which the rioting has made us realize is the same spirit bubbling within young Britain.
When it is provoked, when a laceration is rendered that fissures at either the individual or the societal level, those basest of emotions boil to the surface. And then we are left wondering what happened to the beautiful game we imagined was being played all around us…
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