Football has moved from the back pages of our daily papers to the front, and for all the wrong reasons. Once again racism is rearing its ugly head.
First there was the case of Liverpool player Luis Suarez racially abusing Manchester United’s Patrice Evra in October 2011. The Football Association found Suarez guilty, gave him an eight-match ban and fined him £40,000. This was followed by England and Chelsea captain John Terry allegedly racially abusing QPR defender Anton Ferdinand. Terry has now been charged by the police and was stripped of his captaincy of England.
The racist behaviour of the players was shocking, but the response of sections of the football establishment was just as outrageous. Liverpool FC’s response to the Suarez incident was to send their players out to warm up wearing Suarez T-shirts. Liverpool’s manager Kenny Dalglish defended his player and was more concerned about the club’s image (for image, read profits) than the comfort his actions gave the racists.
Then Sepp Blatter, the president of FIFA, football’s international governing body waded in, arguing that such incidents should be resolved by players “shaking hands” at the end of a match. Not only did Blatter’s crass comments show FIFA’s complete disregard of racism, but his words came back to haunt him. Within weeks of his return to the Premiership, Suarez reopened the racist wound when he refused to shake Evra’s hand at the beginning of a match.
Then England’s manager, Fabio Capello, resigned after publicly challenging the FA’s decision to strip Terry of his captaincy. According to one of Capello’s friends, he was only “standing by one of his players”. Really? Defending someone accused of making racist comments is turning principles on their head.
We all knew things were getting serious when David Cameron called a “football racism summit”. He was worried that football was returning to the “bad old days”. This is kind of rich coming from Cameron. After all this is the man who is more than happy to play the race card, attack multiculturalism and whip up Islamophobia when it suits him.
For Cameron it’s OK when the racism comes polished with an Etonian accent but he winces when a “cruder” form comes out of the mouth of a footballer. Of course nobody wants to go back to the bad old days when bananas were thrown at black players, and monkey gestures and racist chants were common around grounds.
Former professional footballer Leroy Rosenoir gave a powerful and very personal account of the racism he and his family faced at matches in the 1980s at a recent Unite Against Fascism conference. He described the time when he invited his mother and sisters to come to watch him play. It should have been a great day – Leroy scored the winning goal. After the match he rushed off to find his family in the players’ bar, but there were no celebrations. Instead his mum declared she was leaving immediately. He later found out that his family were sitting behind a man who was racially abusing him throughout the game.
Today Leroy is an ambassador for the campaign Show Racism the Red Card and plays a fantastic role combating racism on and off the terraces. Black players like Viv Anderson, John Barnes, Cyrille Regis and Garth Crooks did make a stand against racism in football in the 1980s, but they were often ignored or were told they had a “chip on their shoulder”.
And here is the rub. While many in the football establishment have at best fudged the question of racism in the game, there has been a real concerted effort from below to rid the game of this scourge. The Let’s Kick Racism out of Football campaign was founded in 1993, followed two years later by the launch of Show Racism the Red Card. One encouraging sign is that many black players are refusing to put up with racist bile from other players or fans. And in many cases they are being backed up by other players and managers.
Football is a mirror of our society and it is reflecting a worrying general rise in racism. That does not excuse what’s going on but it should encourage all of us who love football to fight even harder to keep racism off the terraces and off the pitch.
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