Football worship is compulsive and weaves the very fabric of ourselves into the tapestry of our football clubs, and this tie is strong; often unbreakable. That’s why we crave it so much. It’s seductive and addictive in equal measure – it must be, or why would we endure the consistent torture for a few moments of hedonistic pleasure?
The bigger picture
But at what point in the proceedings of football based merriment do we begin to analyse our escapism and bear a greater responsibility for who we really are and what we actually represent? At what stage of our pleasure seeking abandon do we scrutinise the bigger picture and focus our sensibilities on wider, societal issues that the world of football we adore, can genuinely attempt to heal with its power, influence and emotional reach?
Yesterday morning, I was reminded once again of the fragile nature of racial harmony in football by the front page headlines delivered by multiple-award winning, African Player of the Year, Yaya Toure. In an interview with France Football magazine, Toure suggested the reason Pep Guardiola treated him differently may have been because he is African.
“He was cruel with me. Do you believe that Barcelona could have done that with Iniesta? I even started wondering to myself whether it was about my colour. I’m not the first person to talk about his different ways of treating people. When you see that he’s had problems with Africans wherever he’s been in the past, you wonder. When the day comes that he picks a team featuring five Africans…I promise I will send him a cake!”
It’s a fascinating and possibly disturbing account of one footballer’s experience. I’m not for one second accusing Guardiola of racism. Perhaps its one bitter footballer, upset at limited opportunities grasping at straws. But before anyone calls out the classic accusation of ‘pulling the race card,’ remember there would be no such thing as the race card, if there was no such thing as racism. The so-called race card would not exist without inherent intolerance, it would not have life or meaning, were it not for historical crimes and current racial injustice.
“We’ve all heard it”
As football fans, we’ve all heard it. Some of us have shouted it. More have whispered it under our breath. But the majority ignore it. Does our collective inaction condone the ideology? Does our silence make us complicit in the bigotry?
When Paul Canoville became the first black footballer to play for Chelsea in 1982 the National Front held a meeting and encouraged other fans to join the outrage. Chelsea supporters screamed, “Sit down, you black c**t”, “You fucking w*g”. Then they started to chant: “We don’t want the n****r, we don’t want the n****r, la la la la.”
This disgusting abuse showed no sign of reducing some two years later. At the time, Lord Herman Ouseley, (of the Kick it Out parish) then running the Ethnic Minorities Unit at the Greater London Council, decided enough was enough. In 1984, Ouseley, went to see then Chelsea chairman Ken Bates, who couldn’t see that there was an issue. Lord Ouseley explained: “I said – we need to look at what we can do to tackle this problem properly.” Bates sneered, “We don’t have a problem.”
At that point, a crew of shady security people — ‘some big goons in anoraks’ escorted Lord Ouseley off the premises.
Fortunately, the football community have made some significant strides since then to fight this insidious social disease. The Kick it Out campaign, while imperfect, has made a huge difference in English football and while they must be credited with much of the applause, the most crucial contributors to this cultural evolution are the talented black and ethnic minority players who have graced our game since the late 70’s and continue to do so with elegance and passion. Their skill, drive and heroism have elevated them from fringe outsiders to genuine heroes. Likewise the footballing community in this country have had a significant impact on driving out much of this vile behaviour from our stadia and transforming prejudice from front line and overt abuse to angry outbursts on the perimeters of the game. But sadly none of those improvements are enough.
There is no enough until it’s gone and gone forever.
Racism still exists in our game and not just in the stands – and it’s not overtly visible either. Sunderland’s legendary captain Gary Bennett, a key advocate who fights against racism, has exclaimed:
“We have made great strides in the country in tackling the issue but it has raised its head again… You cannot be complacent. You have got to keep on top of it on a daily basis. The minute you take your foot off, then that’s when you start to get problems.”
This year, some thirty-six years since Paul Canoville’s abhorrent abuse, should be a time of looking at racism in football as a hideous, but distant memory. Unfortunately, it isn’t.
Just last year, Ghanaian international and former Portsmouth and Sunderland player, Sully Muntari received such intense racial abuse from supporters during a league game in Serie A, that he walked off the pitch in the second half – and picked up a one game ban for doing so. Muntari had complained incessantly to the referee, and likewise his teammates complained on his behalf. Then amazingly and courageously, at half time Muntari displayed genuine fortitude and walked across to the stand where he’d identified the source of the most virulent verbal denigration. In a sign of forgiveness, Muntrari offered his shirt to a young kid in the crowd.
Later, he described why. Muntrari had hoped to show that despite the horrendous abuse he had suffered, there was a better way to move forward and therefore held out a hand as a sign of unity.
The response? The racism he suffered in the second half was just as painful as the first – so he walked off in peaceful protest. Fortunately, when common sense prevailed, his ban was lifted. But the problem still remains. This is 2018, not 1978. On the matter, Muntari himself declared, “I am determined to fight racism. Football should inspire respect for one race – the human race.”
A worsening problem
Sadly the slow, volcanic return of visible and vitriolic racism and use of racist language in football is creeping its demonic head above the parapet of civility. By the beginning of 2017, the reports of racist language and racist abuse at matches in England had increased 70% since 2012.
The most shocking statistic was sourced from youth and children’s football, where it seems those infantile segregationists and their puerile language have left the policed and regulated terraces of professional stadia and turned their bigotry to the fields of adolescent football, where the game should be pure and free from discrimination, where our children should be protected from all manner of evils – free to play the sport they love.
In 2014, there were 477 reports of racist abuse in grassroots football and in 2015 that number was closer to 800. In 2017, 850. In that same year Greater Manchester Police alone reported 46 incidents, which included a volunteer cleaning the toilets in a changing room being told ‘that’s a fucking black man’s job, you fucking n*****’ and a black manager of a children’s team being told ‘I’ll do you, I’m gonna wait for you outside, I’m going to do you, you fucking n*****’.
The force also said that on two occasions a specific footballer was targeted and during a game someone shouted “What is this the United Nations? How many chinks do you need?”
Hertfordshire Police recorded 11 incidents of alleged racist abuse at children’s football games, while Northamptonshire Police said that during a non-league game a man was spat at and racially abused before eventually having his leg broken in a strong challenge. If you feel outraged, good. Feel very outraged. Feel sick to the stomach. Feel motivated.
Don’t look to FIFA for help
Don’t think FIFA, our grand governing body will help in this crusade. This week, it came to light that the FA were fined £16,000 because one of our under-20 players was seen drinking a Red Bull in the dugout, while it was not the sponsored drink of the tournament. The Russian FA were fined £22,000 for their fans hurling abuse at French players, howling monkey chants and vile racist noises at the direction of players whose only crime was having a different colour skin. How can you be fined almost the same amount for a young kid picking up the wrong drink and thousands of moronic thugs hollering sick racist chants? The false equivalency is insulting, insensitive and astoundingly ignorant.
The cancerous reach of racism blights our game but often dulls our minds of the long term consequences. We have players like Micah Richards shutting down twitter because of racist abuse, and others including Stan Collymore, Ashley Cole, Rio Ferdinand and many more who receive cesspit filled amounts of racist rhetoric that is not just wrong but down right sick and twisted.
I once followed a thread on Collymore’s twitter account and it got to a point where I couldn’t read any more – never mind him. The racist abuse was unequivocally disturbing and psychotic in its execution. Agree or disagree with Collymore? Whatever. Judge him for his punditry or his presentational ability. That’s fair. Like him or dislike him — it’s up to you. But to call for his death or the torture of his family because of the one thing he cannot change? It’s disturbing beyond measure.
A shameful situation
Racism exists in some form – from the top of the game to the bottom. While over 30% of our players in this country are black or from ethnic minorities, the same demographic only makes up less than 4% of our managers or coaches- despite many top black pro’s going through the process of gaining all of their badges and licenses.
For me personally it was highlighted again recently during my own club, Sunderland’s search for a new manager. As I scanned the list for potential candidates and their odds, I noticed a strange anomaly. Lee Clark, a former Sunderland player, universally hated and disliked by Sunderland supporters for an insult against the city and its people was considerably higher in the odds table than another former player, Dwight Yorke — who is remembered fondly by Sunderland fans for being part of an exciting renaissance under Roy Keane. It seemed odd that a former black player, who is largely admired by fans, couldn’t even get ahead of a former white player who is universially despised.
It caused me to wonder further. Dwight and Sol Campbell are two glaring examples of what I describe as covert racism. Both were great players, both have trophy cabinets in their homes filled to the brim with winner’s medals. Yet neither can catch a break in the management game. Joey Barton, though, with no-where near their pedigree, and with a rap sheet as long as your arm (including a prison sentence) is given a shot at management at Fleetwood.
I actually like Joey and hope he is successful, and I’m only using him as an example of how it appears the scales are not exactly weighted in the favour of black or Asian managers. It strikes me as I look at Joey’s new job — and similarly with Steven Gerrard being chased by Rangers and Lampard stepping into Derby — that on the surface of it, players of colour have to reach some form of mythical higher standard, not required by white players, to become managers. Ask this question: Would a black player with a long track record of misdemeanours, who has been to prison and banned from the game itself for gambling against the rules that protect it, get a job as quickly? Would he get a job at all?
“It’s shameful,” says Jason Roberts, voicing the exasperation of many leading black figures in the game. The former Wigan and Blackburn star continues: “In the future we’ll look back at this, like we have with many things in history, and just feel ashamed that we’re in this situation (in 2018) that we’re even discussing this.”
While Jose Mourinho can comfortably state from the top table of the establishment: “There is no racism in football … If you are good, you get the job.”
The facts, evidence and experience of black and ethnic minority ex-players desperate to be involved in the game don’t bear out Mourinho’s sentiments, regardless of how well meaning they were intended.
Lessons from America
Fortunately, to combat this, the EFL have introduced a trial system based on the NFL’s Rooney Rule, which ensures a suitably qualified Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic (BAME) coach will be interviewed for any job that comes free. This is a massive step forward, right? You would hope so, but out of the 10 clubs signed up to the pilot scheme they failed to uphold their promise in six out of eight opportunities last season, changing managers several times with no BAME coaches anywhere near interviews.
But the EFL are determined and are rolling out the system across the league, and hopefully this will lead to a fairer and more equal recruitment system that provides opportunity for the many and not just the few.
In this last year, and to worldwide coverage, many NFL players took a knee to peacefully protest racial injustice in their country. It was not two fingers to the flag like many on the agenda driven right want us to believe. A large proportion of the remaining players linked arms in a similar sign of unity, including global superstar Tom Brady. They are taking a stand to represent those who have no voice, no influence, and no platform. They’ve decided enough is enough.
An opportunity in Russia
I wonder if we in football will do the same? At the world cup and in Russia? Can you imagine the message that could send out across the globe at a time of heightened racial debate? World Cup winner and former Juventus and Barcelona legend, Lilian Thuram, discussed the subject recently in an interview with Reuters:
“I would love it if soccer players did it (took a knee), I think it would be fascinating to see that, and not just black players either… I hope that this resistance movement will spread itself outside the USA and that more people, regardless of skin colour, follow in their footsteps to create a better society.”
And that’s the rub right? We don’t just want better football fans, or fairer employment processes — we want our society to be tolerant and peaceful. Football is a glorious invention that makes the world a better place, an all-encompassing obsession woven into our DNA every bit as much as any religion or social practice can. It’s why we love it so much. The millions who adore this game for all of its intense beauty and its horrendous lows are an army — and we can decide if the wheel of racism and intolerance continues to spin or whether we smash it altogether and eradicate it for good. I pray we do the latter.