Monday, 13 February 2012

self-hating football twits go crazy

In Douglas Coupland's 2010 novel Player One, a disillusioned pastor considers the Internet:
"It came out of nowhere and now it's the cause of over half the problems his flock come to him with: online gambling debt, get-rich-quick schemes, porn addiction, parents freaked about the sites their kids visit, shopaholism. He can't even call the things people do on the Internet sins, because it's all so dull, really, just people sitting in front of screens, and what's that? He hasn't had a shop-lifter or an affair within his flock in years. Now that's interesting - oh so human - but Internet sinning? Nope. Goddam Internet. And his computer's spell-check always forces him to capitalize the word "Internet". Come on: World War Two earned its capitalization. The Internet just sucks human beings away from reality."
Coupland's pastor seems to have a point. All around the world, people sit at keyboards, their faces lit by screens, as they write the kind of hateful nonsense they would never dare to articulate out loud in the company of real human beings - and certainly not if ever actually confronted in person by the subjects of their most unpleasant ravings.

The heat generated by the ongoing sagas around this season's proven and alleged cases of racial abuse in English football have provided plenty of examples of this. Online slanging matches are conducted via Facebook and on messageboards. But of all the social media platforms, Twitter is the one whose reputation for this particular form of trouble is becoming cemented most firmly in the popular imagination.

Twitter - the playground of bloody fools
Back in November, this blog highlighted the unreasonable and unwise behaviour of a Twitter user with the account name @brennan6666. Using what appeared to be his real name and photo in his profile and appearing to be a Chelsea fan (his bio read "Captain, Legend, Leader. JT"), he decided to aim the following remark at QPR defender Anton Ferdinand, the victim of an alleged racially aggravated public order offence for which Chelsea's John Terry will stand trial in July: "RT this you fucking BLACK CUNT, 1 England captain." Of course, the writer of these spiteful and stupid words was not to know that his beloved "JT" would be stripped of the England captaincy within months, as part of the chain of events triggered by the contentious incident on the Loftus Road pitch. Nor could he have imagined that the Pensioners would have a part to play in the end of Fabio Capello's reign as England manager - it seems the club's CEO Ron Gourlay persuaded the judge in Terry's case to agree such a late trial date that the skipper's position became untenable in the eyes of the FA, thereby causing the overpriced and ineffective Italian boss to resign from his post when he disagreed with the Association's stance.

The racist tweeter, one Paul Brennan (assuming that was indeed his real name), apologised and then deleted his account when it dawned on him that, by paraphrasing the words allegedly used by the former England captain during Chelsea's league defeat to QPR, he had risked attracting the attention of the police. Nothing in the public domain suggests that Brennan did in fact get himself into that kind of difficulty, but the possibility exists that his employers could have seen his remarks and decided not to continue their association with someone capable of behaving so appallingly in front of a potentially huge online audience.

John Terry - never England captain material
Anton Ferdinand has had a lot to put up with since the incident at Loftus Road. Brennan, predictably, is not the only idiotic keyboard warrior to have directed bile towards the QPR player. Even worse, the Rangers man has received death threats via snail mail, including one apparently very sinister one which arrived at the West London club on the eve of an FA Cup match with Chelsea in late January. It is worth keeping in mind, of course, that Ferdinand did not make the complaint that has led to Terry facing trial. The police got involved at the behest of a member of the public who reported the matter. The CPS then clearly saw sufficiently compelling evidence to proceed with a case. It remains to be seen if this decision to spend public money on seeking to secure a conviction will be a wise one.

If Terry is found not guilty, some will doubtless argue that a huge injustice has occurred - an innocent man losing the captain's armband for his national side over an affair in which he proved blameless.

Even in that case, others will argue that the Chelsea centre-half was an unsuitable choice for the role of England captain in the first place.

QPR fans will be particularly well aware that the captain's armband is sometimes a purely symbolic object. Last season, their team won promotion with a young and temperamental skipper who was visibly not the real leader of the side on the pitch. The Moroccan play-maker Adel Taarabt, QPR's most creative player and most potent attacking force during the promotion campaign, was clearly given a purely notional leader's role by then-manager Neil Warnock in order to stroke the player's fragile ego, a ruse which was deemed necessary in order for him to realise his potential.

If the position of captain can be a purely symbolic one for a club side, surely that can also be true of a national team which only meets quite rarely and for which there are no year-round leadership duties as such. Journalist Adam Summerton, writing for Sabotage Times about the Terry affair, notes that England seems to be almost unique among major football countries in attaching much importance to the national side's captaincy. Indeed, as the BBC's David Bond has observedCapello himself "arrived in this country bemused with the symbolism attached to the captain's armband" and "was a late convert to the importance of the position." As the former Real Madrid, Milan and Roman manager began to ponder the repercussions of his decision to moan on Italian television about the FA going over his head to end John Terry's second stint as the England captain, Bond remarked that Capello surely wished "he had ignored those who told him he had to pick a permanent leader."

If, then, the captain's role is a purely symbolic one, perhaps it makes sense for any national team manager to prioritise qualities other than on-the-pitch leadership when deciding on whom to confer the honour. Much is often made of the notion of footballers preferably being suitable role models for their youngest fans. The opportunity exists, then, for any nation to inspire a generation of its young people with the good example of a wholesome and commendably well-behaved skipper leading its footballing representatives onto the field of play.

When young England fans follow their parents along Wembley Way to attend a match at the rebooted national stadium, they are met by a twice life size bronze statue of a footballer who gazes over their heads, his arms folded and his left boot resting on an old-fashioned ball. An inscription on the plinth reads: "Immaculate footballer. Imperial defender. Immortal hero of 1966. First Englishman to raise the World Cup aloft. Favourite son of London's East End. Finest legend of West Ham United. National Treasure. Master of Wembley. Lord of the game. Captain extraordinary. Gentleman of all time." The subject of the piece, of course, is Bobby Moore and its creator was seeking to capture the qualities associated with the World Cup-winning skipper, including integrity, loyalty and humility.

Had John Terry ever lifted a major trophy for England, and had a monument been erected in his honour, which of these qualities would have been in the sculptor's mind? None, of course. Because if Capello (and  his predecessor Steve McLaren, who first handed the armband to Terry) accepted the principle that it is desirable for our national team captain to be of good character, then John Terry would never have been appointed to the role. Forget, if you can, the youthful indiscretion of drunkenly taunting grieving American tourists in the immediate aftermath of the 9-11 attacks in 2001. Overlook, if you can, the alleged affair between Terry and the former girlfriend of one of his Chelsea team mates, Wayne Bridge. Put out of your mind that Terry may be seen by some as tainted by the indiscretions of members of his family - his mother cautioned for shoplifting; his father appearing to be caught on camera dealing drugs; his brother, also a footballer, having an affair with the fiancée of a team mate (a bit of a theme for the Terrys?) who went on to commit suicide after failing to come to terms with being cuckolded. But, if you cherish the values of a civilised society, you may find it harder to forgive a man in wonderful physical condition who is paid over £100,000 per week to kick a ball when, instead of walking a short distance to a restaurant from a proper parking space in 2008, he lazily and arrogantly preferred to pay a £60 fine for parking his Bentley in a bay reserved for disabled drivers. For this act of selfishness and contempt alone, Terry should have been permanently barred from the role of  England captain. The example set was a terrible one - be like me kids; earn enough money and you too can say "fuck you" to the disabled without a second thought. You know you've made it when you can sneer at the insignificance of a parking fine.

Let's not shake on it
Ahead of the January cup tie between QPR and Chelsea, there was a buzz of media speculation about the pre-match ritual of the two teams shaking hands. Only introduced in the last few years, this has been a largely innocuous piece of stage management, marketed to fans as being part of a wider initiative to encourage respect between players and fair play on the pitch. For the fan watching on TV or from inside a football ground, it usually passes almost unnoticed.

There have been, however, famous occasions on which the handshaking ceremony took on particular prominence, becoming the focus of intense interest as former team mates with a little bad blood between them failed to shake hands. One of these, of course, involved John Terry and his former Chelsea colleague Wayne Bridge, who had moved on to Manchester City. In February 2010, Bridge had sound reasons for not shaking the hand of the Pensioners skipper. He had decided to retire from international football rather than come in sustained contact with Terry and, as a TV commentator remarked on the day, "if you're prepared to give up an England career over [the personal issue between the two men], I'm not sure how you can shake your tormentor's hand".

A second well-known handshake breakdown involved the same two players. By April 2011, Bridge was on loan at West Ham. Again, he and Terry failed to shake hands before a match.

So with Terry's history of being snubbed during the handshakes routine, and with Anton Ferdinand in the home side once again, the Loftus Road crowd waited to see what would happen on the day of the FA Cup tie in January. Would the alleged racial abuser and his alleged victim somehow rise about the doubtless excruciatingly awkward business of being face to face once again? Rumours were swirling around to the effect that not just Ferdinand but the entire QPR team would refuse to press the flesh with their opponents' captain.

In the end, both teams ran out straight out onto the pitch and the entire handshaking ceremony was scrapped. It turned out that the  FA had approved this measure, preferring it to anything with the potential to inflame both sets of supporters and both sets of players at was already an emotionally charged fixture.

QPR vs. Chelsea, 28th Jan 2012 - the teams run straight into their positions as the handshake ritual is dropped

Let's assume that this relatively recently introduced handshaking business really was ever seriously meant to improve the conduct of professional players. Let's assume that it genuinely is something more than just another way of presenting the Premier League's sponsors, currently Barclays, with additional on-screen branding opportunities - the bank's logo does feature prominently throughout. If that truly is the case, perhaps it's time to drop it as a well-intentioned but ultimately failed measure. It clearly gives undue prominence to simmering grievances between opposing players and it looks increasingly less like something that always sets a civilised tone and more like something that could spark off a confrontation.

This became even clearer this weekend, when Luis Suarez of Liverpool refused to shake the hand of Manchester United's Patrice Evra, following on from the former serving an eight-match ban for racially abusing the latter earlier in the season. Evra reacted angrily, if not violently, and quite the wrong tone was set before the ball had been kicked.

Twitter twits - getting weirder
The Suarez-Evra nonsense has brought out the worst in just as many bloody fools as has been the case with the Terry-Ferdinand affair. Once again, online posturing rather than real-world violence has been the most striking manifestation of the idiocy.

But of all the idiots disgracing themselves with a keyboard and mouse, perhaps one stands out as the silliest and most perplexing of the lot. Observe some of the remarks that Twitter user @sollyfeni directs variously at Patrice Evra, at Rio Ferdinand and at former Liverpool striker Stan Collymore:

What, then, makes this unsavoury character stand out among all the morons who feel that the depersonalising distance of the Internet empowers them to abuse men to whom they surely would not say a single disparaging word face-to-face in public?

Well, The case of @sollyfeni appears to have something in common with the plot of the critically well-received 2001 movie The Believer. Ryan Gosling plays a self-hating Jew, a troubled Yeshiva student who has become a fanatical and violent Neo-Nazi skinhead by the time he reaches his early twenties.

The real name of @sollyfeni appears to be Solethu Feni. All the evidence suggests that Mr. Feni is himself a black South African.

What evidence? Well, while the given name Solethu does not seem to be very common, it does appear once among a long list of victims of gross violations of human rights which forms part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission  of South Africa Report. A Solethu Ngxumza is listed as one of the victims. Another Solethu can be found on a 2011 list of South African local government election candidates.

Also consider some of the images recently shared by Solethu Feni via Twitter. In one picture we see a black woman whom Feni describes as "inspirational". Perhaps a member of his family or a cherished friend? In another picture, captioned  "these are the good times with the gents", we see a black person sitting at a table loaded with beers, a bottle of whisky and a bottle of flavoured water produced by South African firm aQuelle. Looks like a fun party. What would the guests make of Mr. Feni's racist abuse of present and former Premier League footballers? What a strange fellow he seems to be.

Twitter has the potential to close the distance between fabulously well-paid footballers and their fans at home and abroad. It has the potential to give the paying punter a sense of closeness to the game. But, as has been noted here before, and as Solethu Feni has ably demonstrated, there is a lot of downside.

Neil Warnock is not a fan of the microblogging site. During his time at QPR he opined that Anton Ferdinand was a "twit" for using it and thereby opening himself up to the kinds of abuse he has suffered. But the former Rangers manager was never going to be able to insist on a Twitter ban at the club - Chairman Tony Fernandes and captain Joey Barton are notably enthusiastic tweeters. The latter, of course, serves as a good example of how Twitter brings with it a wealth of potential PR and legal problems. Barton's tweets are rarely out of the news, giving tabloid hacks a rich source of material about which they can express faux outrage. Worse, Barton now receives what almost amounts to a deluge of often crudely worded criticism from fans of his own club in the wake of any QPR defeat - and there have been plenty of those, as the west London outfit continues to struggle in the Premier League. Worst of all, perhaps, was Barton's inability to remain wisely silent about the John Terry-Anton Ferdinand affair on Twitter. It does now appear that the QPR skipper will not be charged with being in contempt of court, but it is worth considering whether Terry's lawyers will argue that the tweeted comments of Barton and others have made it difficult for their client to get a fair trial.

But it's not all bad
So on we go, taking the very rough with the pretty smooth as we adapt to life in the always-on, always-connected age. The laws and the etiquette cannot keep pace with the rate of technological change so bad things will happen and for a while no one will really know how best to deal with them.

Douglas Coupland's jaded former man of God updates a list of contemporary sins. It includes: the willingness to tolerate information overload; the equating of shopping with creativity; the rejection of reflective thinking; the belief that spectacle is reality; vicarious living through celebrities.

Along with tabloid newspapers, brightly coloured and vacuous magazines and garish television shows, the Internet, and social media such as Twitter in particular, are among the breeding grounds for all of these vices.

But these media also shorten the time it can take us to learn valuable new things, connect with good new people and create exciting new ways of working and living. In the meantime, though, expect to have to put up with the intrusion of extraordinarily unwise berks like Paul Brennan and Solethu Feni as you use the Internet to get closer to the things that interest you.

1 comment:

  1. It would seem that @sollyfeni is black. I asked one of his friends on FB to be my friend. She is black, according to her photo's.
    I wrote this to her,
    'Did you know that your friend Solutho Feni is the most famous racist in England. Read his vile rants in his timeline on twitter yesterday. @sollyfeni Let your mutual friends know of his views won't you.'
    She answered.
    'Lol dude,anthony is a nikka lyk patric ,he s jst a loyal liverpool surpota,tld hm hw unhuman it was4hm 2write such n hes bin apologising eva since.'