SINGAPORE: David Beckham is one of the most successful and wildly popular players ever to have stepped on to a football field.
But the former Real Madrid and Manchester United star has also had the more dubious honour of being booed by his own fans many times over the course of his illustrious career.
In 2009, he appeared in New York and was jeered both by the home section and his own LA Galaxy supporters.
His crime? Leaving the California club for half a season to go and play on loan with Italian giants AC Milan.
“There were a lot of people highlighting that I might get booed in the build-up, so I expected it,” he said. “It's sometimes nice to get them, actually. It gives you some inspiration. When we played like we did, the boos start to go away in time."
NOT ALL HAVE BECKHAM’S THICK SKIN
Not everyone has Beckham’s thick skin, honed by playing for some of the biggest clubs in the world where demands are high and having shouldered a huge responsibility as captain of England’s football team, which operates under the constant glare of the country’s ruthless tabloid press.
In the end, the Englishman won over the doubters in California where his statue stands outside Galaxy’s home stadium.
At the moment, it is hard to see the same happening in North London.
On Sunday (Oct 27), the issue of whether it is ever acceptable for fans to boo one of their players was again discussed around the world shortly after Arsenal captain Granit Xhaka wandered off the pitch.
The 27-year-old had been substituted during a frustrating game in what is threatening to become another disheartening season for one of England’s top clubs, which has not won the English Premier League title since 2004.
The North London team was initially leading 2-0 at home to Crystal Palace in a game that saw the Eagles come back with a 2-2 just before Xhaka was taken out with 30 minutes remaining.
Arsenal was desperate for a goal. Fans roared at the decision to replace the captain and, with time of the essence, did not hesitate in expressing their displeasure as the Swiss midfielder ambled from the pitch.
Xhaka, made skipper in the summer, reacted, cupping a hand to an ear. Then he appeared to shout “f*** off” before storming down the tunnel, leaving spectators shocked.
There are a handful who express some understanding over Xhaka’s poor reaction but the overwhelming consensus is that he was out of line. He has come under heavy criticism by a number of high-profile television pundits.
Fans too have been called out for swearing and cursing at their team during the game.
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Loyalty is a highly prized value. It is an unspoken but commonly understood law of football that you don’t boo your own players.
For one, such behavior is usually counter-productive even if there are examples of players bouncing back.
‘FANS REALISE THEY CAN GO TOO FAR’
Beckham is one example but there is also Emmanuel Eboue, who was jeered by a section of Arsenal fans for his poor performance in a game at Wigan Athletic in 2008. The Ivory Coast international left the field in tears.
“‘When you are a footballer and your own fans boo you, it’s very bad ... your confidence goes,” he said. “After that happened I said to Arsene Wenger, I don’t want to come in anymore for training because I feel bad”.
Yet the Ivory Coast midfielder bounced back to have a solid career at Arsenal, playing over 200 times before leaving in the summer of 2011 to join Turkish giants Galatasaray for a fee of around US$4.5 million, which gave Arsenal a cool profit of about US$1.5 million on a player who had spent over seven years at the club.
"I think it (the booing) worked for (Eboue) because people think 'Come on, we have gone too far’" Arsene Wenger, coach at the time, said. "I also believe the fans realise that they can go too far and, in that case, part of the public said: 'No that is not right no matter what happens. We have to stand behind the players.'”
Wenger, who was the subject of “Wenger Out” chants in the final years of his two-decades spell in charge of Arsenal, understood that fans can get upset after being incredibly invested in the team.
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"During the game, it is an emotional response. After, when people take a distance, they think ‘Oh no, we have gone too far’ and they correct it. But I understand when you want so much to win during the game you can go a little bit too far."
A NEW BREED OF FOOTBALL FANS
There were others who defended Arsenal fans, claiming that Eboué had committed the cardinal sin of not trying his best. Lack of effort will always anger fans more than lack of talent.
But public opinion was split. The Guardian had none of that and called the booing “disgraceful”.
It called the reaction a reflection of not the longstanding English fans who had stayed with their teams during during the sport's dark days of the 1980s, but a new breed of a more demanding kind of spectator who had been attracted to the English game in the 1990s when crumbling stadiums started to be replaced by shiny new arenas and world-famous stars.
As ticket prices have increased, so have expectations. Fans jeering their own team has become increasingly common in recent years.
“As long as they are in our colours they remain our players,” wrote Richard Williams of the Eboué episode.
“The behaviour of the Arsenal fans, however, appeared to be driven by something more than old-fashioned frustration. It was the self-expression of a new breed of football fans, with their £1,000 (US$1,280) season ticket and increasing sense of entitlement.”
More recently, the Telegraph wrote in 2015 that the modern fan feels a sense of distance from today’s football player and their massive pay packets.
Booing, the publication wrote, had gone from being the last resort of a disgruntled, die-hard supporter to being an integral part of the matchday experience and expression of dissatisfaction of a paying customer when club performance don’t stand up to expectations.
Yet such attitudes mean there is always a way back.
Xhaka may have a few tough weeks ahead but if he can perform on the pitch, then fans will forgive.
There may not be any statues of the Swiss star in North London in years to come but that does not mean his Arsenal career is over.
John Duerden has lived in Asia for 20 years and covers the region’s sporting scene. He is the author of 3 books including Lions & Tigers - The History of Football in Singapore and Malaysia (2017).