Feature

The beautiful game gets ugly when fans turn against their own

Fabricio of Internacional shows the finger to his own jeering fans. (Getty) Source: LatinContent Editorial

It ranks among the most ugly sights in football when the fans turn against a member of their own team.

A footballer, says the great Argentine coach Cesar Luis Menotti, is "a privileged interpreter of the dreams of many people."

It is a wise and beautiful line. Not so beautiful, though, are those situations when many of the crowd would rather not have their dreams interpreted by a particular player. One of the most ugly things in football is when fans turn against a member of their own team.

In Brazil this is a depressingly common occurrence, and one that can follow bizarre criteria. Many, I'm sure, will remember the Belo Horizonte crowd turning against Fred – indeed forcing his substitution – during that crushing World Cup semi final defeat to Germany last year. One might have thought that, with the team losing 7-1, the defenders might be a more obvious target than the centre forward. I, for one, was delighted when Fred responded by finishing last year's Brazilian Championship as top scorer.

At times it can even be funny. In the late 1990s Flamengo of Rio, Brazil's most popular club, signed a utility player called Maurinho, a midfielder by origin who ended up operating at right back. He was not a glamorous player, and the fans did not take to him. For years he had to put up with some rough treatment from his own supporters.

I recall one game when the fans took along a big banner with 'For a Maurinho' (Maurinho out) written on it. He scored with an excellent volley, and the fans responded by covering up 'Fora' and dancing in front of his name as if they had cheered his every step. And then in the next game they returned to the normal routine of criticizing him.

Shortly before one match they surprised everyone by calling for Maurinho's inclusion in the national team. Then they reminded us of the date – it was the first of April.

These stories have a comical content because Maurinho had the strength of character to put up with all of this, to play through it and not let it get to him. Others are not so strong, which is hardly surprising.

There is a school of thought which argues that big time professional footballers are fair game for this kind of treatment because they earn such huge salaries. I cannot agree with such a formula, which places a higher value on money than on the human being.

It is worth remembering – easily done in my case as I approach my 50th birthday – that we are talking about young men. In many cases footballers are young for their age; while their contemporaries have been going out and having adventures, getting into the scrapes that often help form your character, young footballers have been concentrating on their game, trying to ensure they make it in a highly competitive industry. In Brazil the term of 'delayed adolescence' is often used to describe the phenomenon; many careers go off the rails at the moment when the first big contract is signed, because suddenly the youngster feels sufficiently free to join his old friends in some of their escapades.

Whether or not this happens, the self-esteem, the sense of his own worth of the player is inevitably bound up with his level of performance on the field. It is what he does, the activity that he has been dreaming of and trained for. To then be jeered by his own supporters must be an absolutely crushing moment.

Who else is adjudged to have failed more publicly and humiliatingly than a footballer?

Thousands in the stadium, millions on television, those who in theory are on his side, are observing his work and are angry at its deficiencies. No amount of zeros before the decimal point in the bank account can make up for that kind of rejection.

These thoughts are pertinent because of the recent, much publicised incident involving Fabricio, left back of Internacional of Porto Alegre. He had been with the club for four years, and had even scored the goal that ensured qualification for this year's Copa Libertadores, South America's equivalent of the UEFA Champions League. This was not taken into account by the fans when Inter met Ypiranga. Before the match, as the players gathered in the tunnel, the team line-ups were announced to the supporters. Fabricio's name was greeted with a loud and prolonged jeer. The team's form has been somewhat disappointing, and he is the player that the fans have picked on as a lightning rod for their discontent.

At a moment in the game, Fabricio advanced with the ball down the left flank. His plight reminded me of an observation by Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa; if a player dribbles through choice, fine. But if he dribbles because he has no other choice, the team is not positioned well. Fabricio had the ball at his feet for an eternity because other options did not make themselves available. And all the time the protests from the fans were growing.
In the end he snapped. He walked away from the ball – a grave error for a professional footballer – and went across to the fans to make an offensive gesture. He was sent off, and lost his head completely, hurling off his shirt in disgust and protesting all the way to the sidelines.

There is, of course, no way in which his actions can be defended. He made a series of major mistakes. But I can't find it in myself to join the chorus of condemnation. I cannot be sure that in the same circumstances I would not have behaved in the same way. And if Inter has thrown him out, I'm happy that he has quickly fixed himself up with a new club, reigning Brazilian champion Cruzeiro. When the two teams meet in this year's league, Internacional fans can jeer Fabricio as much as they like – this, after all, is expected behaviour towards the opposition. But it would be nice if they accepted that they went too far, and sought to make peace with a player who wore their colours for four years.