Race, it seems, is top of the editorial agenda after (insert obligatory ‘alleged’ here) incidents involving Luis Suarez and John Terry in the past month. Each is seemingly a sad indictment of the English game, where racism it appears, still thrives. Suarez, claims Patrice Evra, called the defender a “n*gger” at “least ten times” during Manchester United’s visit to Anfield in September. Meanwhile, Terry was caught on camera calling Queens Park Rangers’ Anton Ferdinand a “black c*nt”. The only debate is whether Terry’s excuse of context (“No I didn’t call you a…”) is genuine or not. Ferdinand, and his big brother Rio, have been deafening with their silence on the matter.
Disturbing though the incidents are it says much for our lack of progress in combating racism that the clubs and supporters involved have divided largely along partisan lines. To Liverpool’s management, Suarez’ innocence was never in doubt. So much so, that manager Kenny Dalglish has repeatedly called for “the accuser” Evra to face sanction. Meanwhile, Liverpool supporters have engaged in an orchestrated smear campaign against Evra with erroneous ‘evidence’ of the Frenchman repeatedly ‘playing the race card’ distributed liberally by more vocal Scousers.
On Wednesday the FA charged Suarez with using “abusive and/or insulting words and/or behaviour towards Manchester United’s Patrice Evra contrary to FA rules.”
Similarly, Chelsea and the club’s supporters have unilaterally backed Terry’s claim of misunderstanding. Indeed, Chelsea fans were audibly chanting anti-Ferdinand slogans as the Londoners met Genk in the Champions League. Would United supporters behave differently if, hypothetically speaking, Wayne Rooney faced a similar charge? It is a question that supporters should honestly ask and answer.
In fact the controversies of recent weeks have unveiled the shroud of denial about racism in the game. One need only peruse popular social media sites to discover a tsunami of bigotry among match-going fans. Ferdinand was subjected to the worse kind of racist abuse on his own account, from the very supporters defending Terry.
No wonder, with denial coming from the very top: Sepp Blatter, who claimed in an interview with CNN that racism does not exist in football.
“I would deny it. There is no racism,” Blatter told the news station.
“There is maybe one of the players towards another, he has a word or a gesture which is not the correct one, but also the one who is affected by that. He should say that ‘this is a game. We are in a game, and at the end of the game, we shake hands, and this can happen’, because we have worked so hard against racism and discrimination.
“I think the whole world is aware of the efforts we are making against racism and discrimination. And on the field of play sometimes you say something that is not very correct, but then at the end of the game, the game is over and you have the next game where you can behave better.”
Blatter apes the views of more than one prominent pundit, with racist language justified on the basis of ‘banter’ or ‘high emotions’. It says much for the neanderthal element still present in our game. Indeed, the Daily Mail ran a bigoted ‘opinion’ editorial urging black players to “just ignore it” when subjected to racism and be “thankful” for the apparent progress made.
True, gone are the universal ‘monkey chanting’ and banana throwing of 1980s crowds. Racism has gone underground. Yet, surely, race should not be a matter for partisan support. Offence, if the accusations against Suarez and Terry are true, should be universal. That it is not says something for the road football has travelled, but more for the distance yet to go.
There is also a devastating charge of complacency to be levelled against the football community and, perhaps, the Football Association too. Certainly, the governing body’s dithering over both cases does not reflect well on the FA. That a number of prominent black players genuinely considered boycotting the Kick It Out campaign because of the perceived FA governance of the body (it is part financed but not governed by the FA) says much for the frustration felt within the game.
After all, racism is institutionalised in football, with so few administrators and coaches coming from the ethnic minorities, despite black players making up around 25 per cent of professionals in England. Fans of all colours should be ashamed of this.
Perhaps failure to eliminate racism in England is the result of a top top-down culture that embraces discrimination at its very core? After all women and homosexuals also face an institutionalised glass ceiling, and administrators not willing to work hard enough to eliminate discrimination. It is an industry that celebrates the macho and aggressive, and one wonders whether the football community – fans, players, administrators – will ever accept a player for what he is, and not his sexual orientation, background or race. Recent events have brought this into question.
More than 30 years since Justin Fashanu – the first gay professional to come out – was driven to his suicide football has seemingly achieved little. There is little serious attempt to do so from within the game, save for an FA sponsored video last year. That the governing body was unable to attract leading footballers to take part in the video paints just as vivid a picture. Gordon Taylor, president of the Professional Footballers Association, admitted last year that tackling homophobia is simply “not very high on the agenda,” while homophobic language is endemic throughout the football community.
The community’s reaction to the latest turn of events suggests that there is some way to go when it comes to racial equality too. While a presumption of innocence is enshrined in our legal system, there is little reason to believe that Evra is lying – the FA charge suggests the body believes his account too – or that Ferdinand uncertain about what he did (or apparently did not) say to Terry.
The FA is likely to set a very high bar for proof, keen as the body is to avoid all controversy. It takes genuine strength of will an authority to sit in judgement; something the governing body has long since lost. But now, more than ever, is the time for the body to truly govern our game.