Racism in football: Are we heading back to the 80's?

It’s the issue everyone’s talking about, but then again, it’s the issue no-one can avoid. Racism in football has been endlessly discussed in recent weeks after a number of unsavoury incidents that are tarnishing all the good work football has done to move on from such prejudice and quite frankly, prehistoric views. English football has improved 100% from the days in the 80’s when terrace hooligans sported swastikas and waved National Front propaganda around the crowd. Such behaviour, as highlighted by the Everton fans treatment of John Barnes when he came on as a substitute, hasn’t been seen for years; perhaps that was the watershed mark for English supporters. The iconic image of Barnes casually back-heeling a banana off the touchline struck home a vital note and the FA introduced many measures to try and rid the game of one of its many contentious issues.

Ultimately, such attempts appear to have worked, the FA, clubs and footballers themselves have worked hard to develop schemes within local communities, indeed the ‘Kick Racism Out of Football’ and ‘Show Racism the Red Card’ have been two of the more noteworthy projects that have reduced such behaviour within our game. There’s no point going into the problem of racism in Europe, we all know of the disgusting treatment that black English players have suffered at the hands of foreign ‘fans’, even in a country as Westernized as Spain. Shaun Wright-Phillips and Ashley Cole underwent horrendous abuse during an international friendly in Madrid back in 2004, whilst there are too many incidents in Eastern Europe to list. Dick Advocaat once famously said he refused to sign black players when in charge of Zenit St Petersburg, given the reception the animals of Russia would afford them when they stepped on the pitch. Fortunately, aside from the idiotic minority, Britain no longer suffers from terrace abuse that still mares the reputation of our European cousins, but on the pitch, it’s a completely different matter.

The story of Luiz Suarez is a difficult one and the FA has finally decided an 8 match ban is appropriate for his actions. This is a serious punishment, Liverpool lose their best striker for a considerable period and this decision will severely hamper their chances of returning to the Champions League. We all know what Suarez was alleged to have chanted 8 times at Patrice Evra, we all know that using that as a white person in England using that word to someone of black origin would be in serious trouble. So surely a Uruguayan should be treated with the same contempt in our country? Wrong. The culture of South American determines a completely different attitude to using words of this nature, indeed Suarez’s international teammate Maxi Pereira is known as ‘El Mono’ (the monkey.) Apparently this nickname is given and taken with no offence, intended in a similar way to fellow player Alvaro Fernandez being called “El Flaco”, which means skinny. The people of Britain cannot understand how this can be acceptable in any culture, but then the vast majority of Britain also think it’s acceptable to stroll into a bar in Paris or Rome, order in English, then roundly abuse the waiter when he doesn’t understand your order.

The Suarez case has therefore offered up a dilemma to the FA, the difficulty regarding language barriers in our game. How can the meaning of a word in one country be translated into the context of another? The ban hasn’t gone down well within Uruguay, who feel their country has been misrepresented and Gus Poyet the Brighton boss, a fellow Uruguayan international in his day spoke out in support of Luiz when the incident first arose. The FA have to act correctly so not to be defined as racist but I think the general opinion of the country believes the ban is too harsh. One has to accept that in Uruguay, the context is completely different. However, I understand the need to hand out some form of punishment, the FA needs to be seen to be making an example, indeed making abusive comments about another player alone is a matter that should be not encouraged, and given the nature of our society, Suarez needs to be made an example of to ensure a situation like this does not arise again.

The matter of John Terry is a completely different one. Criminal charges have now been brought against the England captain for his behaviour towards Anton Ferdinand at Loftus Road in October. Terry himself denies all allegations, stating “I have never aimed a racist remark at anyone and count people from all races and creeds among my closest friends.” He will fight to prove his innocence having claimed he was misheard by Anton, whose brother has partnered Terry at the heart of England’s defence for the best part of 6 years. It is difficult to know where the truth lies in this matter; Anton Ferdinand is believed to have very strong feelings on the subject, while some have claimed there is video evidence of Terry aiming a racist slur at his fellow professional.

If he is found guilty, Terry should never play for England again at the very least, the man is a supposed role model for his country and yet controversy always seems to be one step behind him. John has insisted the incident is a ‘misunderstanding’ but his previous doesn’t stand him in good stead. His public image is horribly low following the Wayne Bridge affair and this seems to have played into people’ considerations as they judge him guilty before proven innocent. It is another tricky one to comment on; indeed it would be a huge setback for the game if Terry was to be found guilty being the England captain and having worked on many anti-racism campaigns in the past.

These two incidents suggest racism is far from being a thing of the past. All the good work undertaken by so many individuals seems to have been undone and people will have to be reminded of their responsibilities to keep football a multi-cultural game. Whatever your opinion on the Suarez or Terry affairs, (no pun intended there) it is difficult to rid football of racism with such an idiot running the game. Yes Sepp Blatter, I’m talking to you. His comments this year went like this: “There is no racism, 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.”

Congratulations must be given to our wonderful FIFA president who effectively set the game back by 30 years, to the days when Ron Atkinson can comment on Cameroonian players having their mothers sitting up trees and escape punishment. The football world went crazy, calling for Blatter’s head on a plate, but the stubborn Swiss fool refuses to let go, despite his consistent tarnishing of the game. I doubt he’d be removed from his position even if he demanded football was amalgamated with rugby. When racism is ignored right at the top of the game, it makes it harder to stamp out in the lower echelons and this explains why progress in showing racism the red card has stalled. I leave you with Rio Ferdinand, an outspoken critic on the subject who said “I feel stupid for thinking that football was taking a leading role against racism. It seems it was just on mute for a while.”

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