The issue of racism in football has once again come to the fore, following incidents involving high profile Premier League players.
In October 2011 Liverpool player Luis Suarez was accused of racially abusing Manchester United’s Patrice Evra during a match.
Liverpool FC’s response to the allegation was to send their players out to warm up pre-match wearing Suarez T-shirts.
Two weeks ago an Oldham Athletic player was racially abused by a Liverpool supporter wearing a Suarez T-shirt during an FA cup tie.
Suarez was found guilty of using racist language on 31 December, banned for eight matches and fined £40,000 by the FA.
Liverpool continues to support him and denies his language was racist.
Meanwhile John Terry is awaiting trial following TV footage of him apparently hurling the vilest of abuse at Anton Ferdinand of Queens Park Rangers.
Terry is captain of both England and Chelsea.
Sepp Blatter—president of FIFA, football’s international governing body—said that such incidents should be resolved by players “shaking hands” at the end of the match.
British fans responded to this with outrage and calls for his resignation. He quickly issued a public apology.
The strength of the reaction to racism in English football is no coincidence.
There were few black players in the early days of football, but one of them, Andrew Watson, captained Scotland in the 1880s.
He faced racism from some supporters and the response was much the same as today.
The Wolverhampton Echo condemned racist abuse towards black Spurs player Walter Tull in 1909. It called racism “cowardly”, adding that Tull was a “model for all white men who play football whether they be amateur or professional”.
Yet in the 1970s and 1980s racism was rife at certain English football grounds. It reflected a rise in racism in wider society.
Racist chanting and abuse was common. Bananas were thrown from stands and terraces at black players and football clubs were targeted by far right groups for the dissemination of racist literature.
The England team in particular became associated with a far right following. Home games at Wembley were marred by abuse of black English players.
Black players from the 1980s like Viv Anderson, Garth Crooks and Cyrille Regis have described regular racist abuse from supporters.
Referees, managers and the Football Association were apparently unwilling to do anything about it.
The 18 year old Anderson complained to his manager about bananas and other fruit being thrown at him on the pitch. He was told to “get back out there and bring me an apple and a pear”.
Supporters responded by setting up anti-racist campaigns including Charlton Athletic’s “Red, White and Black at the Valley” and “Leeds Fans Against Racism”.
These campaigns were among many that set out to challenge racism on the terraces. It was a time when anti-racists were campaigning on the streets against racism in society.
In the early 1990s the Let’s Kick Racism Out of Football campaign was established. High profile football players and clubs supported it. It has become a benchmark for anti-racism campaigns internationally.
These campaigns were largely successful.
It is rare now to hear racist chants or comments at football grounds, and anti-racists are more confident in challenging racism if it arises.
There are still racist elements. Early English Defence League protests included England flags emblazoned with “firm” signatures.
But these days when the odd racist raises his ugly head at matches he tends to be challenged. And if one person tells them to shut up, many others join in.
It was wonderful to hear the anti-racist chants at the Manchester United match on Saturday, but there are still many issues that need to be addressed.
The increase in black players in professional football is not reflected in numbers of black supporters attending matches.
Hundreds of thousands of young Asians are playing and watching football in Britain.
Yet there are only seven British Asian players in professional football. There are no openly gay professional footballers at all in Britain.
English football has come a long way. That’s due to persistent campaigning at a grassroots level and by organisations such as Show Racism the Red Card and Kick It Out.
We need to continue the fight against racism and all forms of discrimination and bigotry in football and in society as a whole.