Around the world, throwing a banana onto a football pitch is edible semantic shorthand for insinuating an opponent’s affinity with apes. The Scots, who pride themselves on their hirsute, eccentrically dressed, but extremely well-behaved fans—in contrast to the neighboring English, who are notorious for male-pattern baldness and hooliganism—instantly made efforts to distance themselves from the racist banana. This led to equally racist claims that an Englishman was responsible and, more humorously, that no self-respecting Scot would let a piece of fruit anywhere near his body.
One of the best examples of football’s tribalism is Glasgow, where Rangers FC draws its support from the city’s monarchist Protestant elements, while Celtic FC attracts the Catholics and republicans. Many Celtic fans are also descendants of Irish immigrants who identify with Sinn Fein and the IRA, while the Rangers faithful root for Ulster’s loyalist paramilitaries. Because of perceived similarities between the IRA and groups such as the PLO, Celtic fans took to waving Palestinian flags at their matches a few years ago. In a ridiculous tit-for-tat, Rangers fans responded by flaunting Israeli banners.
Americans are sure to find this all very bewildering, but a trawl around the world’s soccer grounds will only reinforce their culture shock, turning up instances of monkey chanting, Nazi salutes, Holocaust references (used against teams suspected of having Jewish fans), banners emblazoned with “Death to Arabs,” and celebrations of disasters such as the 1958 airplane crash that killed half of the Manchester United team.
The world’s footballing grounds might appear to be dark and disturbing places unless you have faith in group catharsis and realize that most people are unlikely to behave in their daily lives the way they chant in stadiums. Indeed, stopping such behavior at the stadium might cause it to emerge in their daily lives.
Ostentatiously taunting the opposition is all part of the game and should not be taken too seriously. The same Chelsea supporters who once chanted “Hitler’s not dead, he’s the leader of the Shed” (Chelsea’s ground) were quite happy when Roman Abramovich took over the club and spent a fortune on top players. Likewise, the same supporters who throw bananas at their opponent’s “darkie” players worship their own sable geniuses when they score. Racism is not always racism, unless you’re a soccer mom moving heaven and Earth to stop junior from getting hooked on the NBA.
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