Two recent high-profile cases of alleged and proven racism within the English game have again prompted debates about racism within the world’s favourite sport. Why does this matter? Well, the majority of those subjected to the worst racial abuse happen to be Africans or those of African heritage. What it also threw an unwelcome light on was the way the authorities, fans and clubs dealt and continue to deal with the accusations.
The cases that prompted the game’s authorities to indulge in another bout of soul-searching happened to involve some of the clubs and individuals with a worldwide following. The first, featured ManchesteraUnited and France left-back Patrice Evra and Luis Suarez of Liverpool and Uruguay. Evra accused the Liverpool man of persistent verbal racial abuse during a match between the two teams. Suarez is already a hated man across Africa for his handball in the Ghana – Uruguay World Cup match, which denied Ghana a goal and progress in that tournament. For many Africans, Suarez’s World Cup handball alone deserved a guilty verdict. The Liverpool – Manchester United rivalry is already the fiercest in English football and often needs little to add fuel to the flames of what can be a sometimes passionate and misguidedly venmous rivalry. It did not help matters when, in the game after the charges were laid against Suarez, his manager, Liverpool legend Kenny Dalglish and his whole team took to the field before that match wearing t-shirts with Suarez’s name and face on it. The condemnation of this throughout the rest of football was total; surely, it would have been far better for the manager and players to have donned t-shirts condemning racism. Liverpool fans, in the main also supported their player. Perhaps it was because the incident involved United that they took this view. Nonetheless, it served to re-emphasise the parochial, blinkered and tribal nature of football. As it was, after considering the evidence, Suarez was handed an eight-match ban by the league.
The next incident, which has still not been settled, involved an accusation levelled against the Chelsea and England captain, John Terry. Interestingly, the accusation that Terry had racially abused Anton Ferdinand, brother of former England captain Rio, came not from the player or anyone else on the pitch but from the police. At the time of writing this, the case has yet to be settled but it has already had repercussions within the game. Sepp Blatter, head of Football’s governing body, FIFA weighed in by saying he felt incidents of this nature should stay on the pitch and be settled with a handshake. The criticism he received for this ill founded comments came as a surprise only to Blatter himself. Until the matter is settled, Terry remains innocent until otherwise proven. This did not stop the Football Association from stripping Terry of the England captaincy. England’s Italian coach, Fabio Capello resigned saying he had not been consulted and that unless proven guilty, Terry should not have been removed as captain. Many, including this writer, suspect the FA’s decision to strip Terry had more to do with being pragmatic and wanting to avoid the inevitable media debate that would have raged and had already started gathering pace.
These discussions also matter because they allow us to look back on the history of racism within the game, on and off the pitch. The most obvious changes involve the behaviour of fans in the immediate vicinity and within the confines of these ‘cathedrals of football’. In the 1970s, much as they loved the game, many Black people simply chose not to attend football matches, for to do so meant having to run the gauntlet of racist abuse including from fans who supported the same club as them. In those days, there were far fewer Black footballers plying their trade in the game. So much so, that Everton, Liverpool’s near-neighbours and city rivals could have their fans chanting ‘Everton are White, Everton are White’ when John Barnes played one of his early games for Liverpool. Today, Everton has an integrated team with almost the same number of non-White and White players. And, the monkey noises and boos every time a Black player touched the bal have completely disappeared from English football.
These discussions also matter because these days, there is not a single country that does not feature African players or players of African descent playing in their leagues or national teams, especially in Europe. For many of these ‘enlightenment’ has not yet arrived. This is particularly true of the former Soviet Bloc countries and the many new countries created in the wake of the end of the Soviet Union. In these countries, there is no disguising the noise and venom of racist chanting that still happens every time a Black player on the opposition touches the ball. Some have been interviewed saying they would prefer it if their teams did not field Black players. How galling it must be for some of them that the world’s highest-paid player, Cameroon’s Samuel Eto’ O plays in the Russian league! Eto’ O has of course made his views well known on the subject when he was pelted with peanuts by fans of Real Zaragoza when he played for Barcelona. The monkey chants that accompanied the peanuts showed that even in a country where great strides had been made to eradicate football racism, being one of the world’s best, most decorated and most well-known Africans was no shield against racist fans.
The cliché is that racism is as much society’s problem as it is football’s and there is more than a grain of truth in that. Until people are educated enough not to believe that mere skin colour makes them better than another human being, there will never be an end to racism. Within football, the penalties imposed on individuals, teams and supporters may stop them in their tracks, but will it stop them permanently? The answer is, unfortunately, “highly unlikely”.