Buidling Dreams Together


Football fans and their clubs, how big can the void between them get?

On the 10th of February, in the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, Pape Matar Sarr scored for Tottenham in the 61st minute. The goal pulled Tottenham level with Brighton and at 1-1 Tottenham looked the likely side to go on and win the game, which is something they managed to do, albeit in the 96th minute with a last gasp Brennan Johnson winner. It’s the type of performance that Tottenham fans have become used to, plenty of the ball, some decent chances at both ends and then suddenly they find themselves a goal behind. On this occasion it was after a penalty was awarded following Tottenham losing the ball while trying to pass their way out of their own box. More often than not it’s turned out ok for Spurs fans this season, they find themselves well in with a chance of getting Champions League football and finally have a manager and a style of football that they can get behind. Considering Tottenham have almost certainly broken some sort of record for most games completed without an available centre back, the season so far has been positive. At the very least Tottenham have been great to watch, their absolute determination to play out from the back, their constant use of two inverted full backs and incredibly high line have meant that almost every game this season has been box office. But most of us who spend too much of our time watching football know this already, none of the above is particularly groundbreaking and unless you missed the game on the 10th of February between Tottenham and Brighton none of it is even that interesting. The thing that did catch my attention on the 10th of February however, was what happened after Sarrs equaliser. I’m not referring to the game itself, the chances for Brighton to go back ahead, the chances for Tottenham or the late Johnson winner. It’s what happened immediately after that piqued my interest. Before I get into it, I want to do a quick overview of the man directly involved, Pape Matar Sarr. The Senegalese player is now in his 2nd season at Tottenham (he signed during 21/22 but was loaned back to Brest in Ligue 1 for the rest of the season). In his first campaign he was limited to 14 appearances and just 5 starts, however he quickly caught the eye of many Tottenham supporters, mainly due to the fact that he has a great engine and bags of technical ability. This season has been his real breakthrough, under Ange Postecoglou, Sarr has played 23 times and made 19 starts, considering he spent over a month away on international duty with Senegal that’s a great return. He seems to go about his business in quite a modest fashion and could have all the makings of a real fan favourite. This is an opinion that seems to be shared by the club as on the 2nd of January he signed a six year contract extension. So things for the 21 year old seem to be on the up and up, he’s becoming a regular starter, a potential fan favourite and he’s even managed to score 3 times this season. The 3rd of which was scored against Brighton on the 10th of February, in the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, in the 61st minute. 

So now that we’re back where we began I would like to explain what happened next. As you would expect, the 21 year old Senegalese international was in a pretty good mood after scoring, not only because it’s the natural reaction of a football player after scoring a goal, but also, potentially, for all the reasons listed above. And in his exuberance Pape Sarr celebrated by running towards the 17,500 home supporters in the South Stand, leaping over the advertisement boards and into the arms of the supporters who have paid their hard earned money to watch their side do exactly what Pape Sarr had just done. It’s a lovely picture isn’t it? A young footballer on the rise, celebrating with his fans, who have paid through the nose for their seats. (As a side note, according to Statista, Tottenham supporters currently have the second highest season ticket prices behind Fulham this season. That’s right, Fulham… The average price for a season ticket in Craven Cottage is around the £3,000 mark. I’m sure Fulham fan Richard Osman has no problems paying for his ticket, but there is some irony, considering he’s most probably using the money earned from his show ‘Pointless’.) So Sarr celebrates with his fans, he’s happy, the supporters who got to celebrate with him are happy, and pretty much everyone in the ground that day who wasn’t either playing, coaching or supporting Brighton was happy… right? Not quite. As Sarr leapt over the advertising boards and dived into the supporters arms, Pedro Porro, Sarr’s team mate and Tottenham’s right back didn’t follow him. He stayed pitchside and immediately, seeing his teammate celebrating with supporters, began to urge him back over the advertising boards. (You can actually see this as it was caught on camera during the broadcast, it’s also in the highlight footage.) What Pedro Porro seemed to know, that myself and it seems Sarr did not, was that Sarr shouldn’t have done what he did. Sarr, and myself, as I was watching live, soon found out the reason for Porro’s prostations, because as soon as Sarr stepped back over the advertising boards, the referee on the day, Samuel Barrot, issued Pape Sarr a yellow card. Pape Sarr briefly looked at the ref in confusion before continuing on. He had either forgotten or had been quickly informed that to celebrate in the fashion that he did is deemed a bookable offence. A bookable offence, to celebrate with your supporters? Is that a rule? I decided that I’d have a look for myself. It turns out that there is not a rule that permits a player from celebrating with the fans. There is however a rule that permits a player from ‘leaving the field of play’. On the International Football Association Board’s website there is a list of all of the cautionable offences that can happen during a game. The list isn’t very long and it has all the stuff you would expect such as; unsporting behaviour, delaying the restart of play, dissent by word or action etc. The offence for celebrating with your fans is not included, what is included however is the following: entering, re-entering or deliberately leaving the field of play without the referee’s permission. This is the only rule listed that I can find which would explain booking a player for what Sarr did. Sarr technically left the field of play. So there it was, I thought, Sarr was given a booking for leaving the field of play. It’s a harsh booking given mainly on a technicality. Sarr isn’t the only player this season to have been booked for celebrating with the fans; it has happened on other occasions. I decided I’d look into why this loosely worded rule exists and why referee’s are using it to caution players for doing something that to me is such a beautiful part of football. That was until I looked at the FA’s website where they list their interpretation of the rules when it comes to players and their celebrations. On the FA’s website under ‘rules and regulations’ and ‘laws of the game and FA rules’ they state the below:

“Players can celebrate when a goal is scored, but the celebration must not be excessive; choreographed celebrations are not encouraged and must not cause excessive time-wasting.

Leaving the field of play to celebrate a goal is not a cautionable offence but players should return as soon as possible.

A player must be cautioned, even if the goal is disallowed, for:

Climbing onto a perimeter fence and/or approaching the spectators in a manner which causes safety and/or security issues.

Gesturing or acting in a provocative, derisory or inflammatory way.

Covering the head or face with a mask or other similar item.

Removing the shirt or covering the head with the shirt.

Delaying the restart of play”

Did you notice what I noticed? As far as the FA are concerned leaving the field of play is NOT a cautionable offence. I watched Pape Sarrs celebration again to find out if he had committed any of the other offences listed above. He did nothing provocative or inflammatory, his face wasn’t covered and his shirt remained exactly where it should be, the fans seemed safe enough, there was no rush or fall. I even timed how long it took him to return to the field of play, to see if he spent too long with the supporters and was therefore booked for excessive time wasting. He was off the pitch for 9 seconds… hardly a long time. To me it’s clear there is no specific rule that Sarr had broken and quite frankly should not have been booked. But that isn’t what annoys me about this, what annoys me is that for some reason, referee’s are now booking players for embracing their supporters. And while I’ve noticed it on numerous occasions and delved into this particular incident in quite a lot of detail, the fact is it is quite a difficult thing to report on. Referee’s reports are not made public, so we cannot find the specific reason for Sarr’s booking, also there has been no particular statement made regarding players celebrating with fans and how referees will be clamping down on it and as I’ve shown in this article the rules themselves are not clear on the matter at all. One thing is clear however, referee’s are booking players for celebrating in this manner and the main question I have for them is why? Why on earth are players being booked for something so completely and unequivocally in spirit with the game? Why should a player be penalised for something like this? And the sad thing is, the fact referee’s are booking players for these celebrations means players will stop doing it. Why is it that the football authorities want to stop players from doing something that makes a fans day or week or even maybe their year? Why would they want to stop something that shows so clearly the match day connection between the players and their fans, between a club and its loyal supporters? 

The world of football is going from strength to strength, the sport has more money being pumped into it than ever before. The bottom line is if you are a player, a coach, an owner of a club, an executive for a footballing association, a sponsor, a broadcaster or a pundit and you are at the top of the footballing pyramid this is the best that you have ever had it, in almost every fashion and at the very least financially. Effectively anyone involved in Football is reaping the rewards of the economic tsunami that has engulfed the sport over the last 20 years… excluding of course, the supporters. Football supporters are not benefitting from the commercial growth of the sport, in fact I’d say it’s quite the opposite, fans are I believe, losing out and quite considerably. Football supporters are fans not customers, that won’t be the first time you will have heard that old adage but it’s true, I don’t think it could have been proven anymore then it has in the last decade or so. Football fans pay more than ever for season tickets, for match day tickets, for shirts in the club shop and pints served in the grounds cost more then they do in their local pub. And when they can’t afford to go to the game itself they’re charged higher and higher costs for their sports package on their TV at home. Then, they find out that due to the popularity of the sport there are rival broadcasters, which means paying for their sports packages as well, just so they can at the very least watch their team play at home. The bottom line is the average football fan is being priced out of the sport, but do we cancel our subscriptions? Stop going to the games? Of course not, because we aren’t customers, we are fans. And the problem is the Football clubs and associations know this, they know they can continue to treat us badly for this very reason. But from an economic and money perspective I can understand it, I can understand why the Football authorities, associations and owners of clubs continue to treat fans this way, it’s just good old fashioned greed. However, their treatment of supporters may be leaking into new territory, the desire to push the fan as far away from the sport as possible is reaching new heights, with this new desire to stop players celebrating with the supporters. For me Pape Matar Sarr leaping over the advertisement boards into the fans arms is the physical manifestation of cutting through the commercially constructed void that exists between the modern day footballer and the modern day supporter. Unfortunately I think the booking of Sarr for this act is also a physical manifestation… of where the sport is and where the sport is heading. So next time you see a player booked for celebrating with his supporters, you might ask yourself, how big can the gap between the players and the fans get? Or, more worryingly, is there anything we can do about it?