Football still hasn't kicked out racism

Sat, Jan 14, 2012, 00:00

Racism in English soccer is back in the headlines after allegations against Chelsea’s John Terry and Liverpool’s Luis Suárez. But it has long been bubbling under, writes MARK HENNESSY, London Editor

LAST SATURDAY, as their club faced Leicester City in the third round of the FA Cup, a small group of Nottingham Forest fans stood in the club’s main stand to chant abuse at visiting fans in the Bridgford Stand. First they sang, “England, England, England”, before going on, “You’re not any more, you’re not any more, you used to be English, you’re not any more.” The 53-second clip, posted on YouTube, attracted several thousand viewers.

Ten people were arrested on the day for public-order offences, but none of them was involved in the chanting, though Nottinghamshire police have begun to scour copies of CCTV tape since the clip appeared.

Now the question is whom the chanters’ targets were: the Thai owners who took over the club in October 2010 or the Leicester fans from a city that was predicted in 2008 to become the first in Britain to have a nonwhite majority by the end of 2011. Four years ago, 40 per cent of the city’s population were from ethnic minorities; 28 per cent were Indians originally from Gujarat, Uganda or Kenya; the city also included African-Caribbeans, Somalians and Pakistanis, among others.

So far, Nottingham police superintendent Mark Holland is clear: “The incident is being treated as a hate crime. We take all reports of racism very seriously and work extremely closely with the football clubs in Nottinghamshire in a bid to kick racism out of the game.”

On many levels, football can argue that it has done much in the past couple of decades to rid football of the worst of the racism that marred the careers of late 1970s stars such as Justin Fashanu and Cyrille Regis, who had to endure monkey chants and bananas thrown on to the pitch.

The Kick It Out campaign, which began in 1993, has worked to educate youngsters on the issue, while the head of coaching development at the Professional Footballers’ Association, Paul Davis, said there “is no way near as much” abuse as there was 25 years ago.

Last season, nearly 30 million tickets were sold for league games in England, including nearly 14 million for the Premier League and nearly 10 million for the Championship. Just 42 people were arrested for racist or indecent chanting outside stadiums, and just one inside a ground.

Offenders of all sorts have faced punishment. In April 2004, the former manager Ron Atkinson was forced to quit his highly paid post as an ITV pundit after he was caught on tape describing Chelsea’s Marcel Desailly as “what is known in some schools as a f***ing lazy, thick n****r”.

Six months later, four Blackburn fans were fined and banned for up to five years for going to games after racially abusing Birmingham’s Dwight Yorke. Four years ago Plymouth fans were banned indefinitely after they made racist jibes at Watford players.

But Ellis Cashmore, professor of culture, media and sport at Staffordshire University, believes that racism never went away. Instead it went underground. “People became more circumspect, knowing that they would suffer lifetime bans if caught,” he says.

Equally, the situation has improved because British society generally became more tolerant from the the 1980s. “Back then there was a confidence that such views would be shared by the people around you,” Cashmore says. “You had the confidence of being part of the crowd. Now people would not nearly have the same confidence that their opinions would be shared by the guy sitting in the seat in front of them.”

The climate has begun to change once more, however, partly, some believe, because of the way Liverpool furiously defended Luis Suárez against charges that he had racially abused the Manchester United player Patrice Evra last October.

In a report, the Football Association banned the Uruguayan and fined him €48,000 after it accepted the Frenchman’s claims that Suárez had used the Spanish word “negro” seven times during the game, describing Suárez’s testimony as “inconsistent” and “unreliable”.

Infuriated, Liverpool’s players wore T-shirts the day after the ban was imposed, showing their support for Suárez as they came out to play against Wigan, while their manager, Kenny Daglish, told fans on Twitter they “should not let him walk alone”.

Liverpool is livid because it believes its player was convicted without proof. “It is our strongly held conviction that the Football Association and the panel it selected constructed a highly subjective case based on an accusation that was ultimately unsubstantiated. Mr Evra was deemed to be credible in spite of admitting that he himself used insulting and threatening words towards Luis and that his initial charge as to the word used was somehow a mistake,” said the club when it returned to the attack.

But Liverpool’s response – even if, arguably, the club has a case given the way the FA dealt with it – has been “misinterpreted” by some people, says Cashmore. “The perception is that it has been stubborn and has been, by implication, racist.”

Just over a week ago an Oldham player, Tom Adeyemi, was allegedly abused racially by a 20-year-old Liverpool fan, who was subsequently arrested. Afterwards, Oldham went to some lengths to praise Anfield for the way that it had cared for the upset Adeyemi.

In the past, Cashmore argues, some football fans refused to acknowledge the skills of black players, before being forced to accept the brilliance of Ruud Gullit, John Barnes and so many others. “But, on the other hand, they believe that blacks have no rights to be there. It is a warped logic.”

Welcoming the Suárez ruling, Piara Powar, the executive director of Fare, a Europe-wide organisation set up to counter racism, says that English football has dealt unsatisfactorily with the issue “despite many cases over the past 10 years. As a club with an international standing, the vehemence of their campaign is unquestionably causing them reputational harm, and has led Liverpool fans to become involved in a backlash of hatred on web forums and other public arenas.”

Cashmore believes many black footballers have kept silent for years, and credits Evra with daring to go public when others would not because they did not want to jeopardise multimillion-pound salaries or because they feared they would not be believed.

Cashmore points to the Blackburn Rovers player Jason Roberts, who has spoken about experiencing racism throughout his career, most recently half a decade ago. “Yet he wouldn’t name anyone, even though it was five years ago. Presumably, he believed that he would become a marked man, so he clammed up. Footballers think that they have to stick together.”

Unlike others, Jon Garland, a University of Leicester lecturer who has written frequently about racism in football, doubts if social networks such as Twitter are much to blame for the recent surge in cases, though others believe it has offered “the comfort of the crowd”.

He does, however, see a role for the far-right English Defence League, which is closely affiliated with Casuals United, a so-called protest group that describes itself as uniting “the UK’s Football Tribes against the Jihadists”.

“It might be the case that the confidence that the English Defence League supporters have gained from their activity on the ground might have given them more confidence to make their opinions more obviously felt at games,” he adds.

IF SOME FANS are racist, however, there is equal reason to believe that some of the clubs are institutionally racist, as just two of the 92 managers in the leagues are black, including the former Irish international Chris Hughton, now in charge of Birmingham City.

There has been talk of efforts to increase the numbers, as there was in the past, but little has changed, while the Football League, which represents all bar the top clubs, was irked when questioned about the numbers – “You’d have to ask the clubs. I wasn’t in the room when they made the appointments.”

The Football League does say it plans to do more to tackle racism: “The League has agreed to contribute towards a bursary scheme, in conjunction with other football bodies, that will help black and minority ethnic coaches to further their football qualifications and progress their career,” said a spokesman.

Prof Cashmore finds no reason to believe that change will come soon. “Football boards have very few ethnic minorities on them. That’s more likely to be the issue than the players or backroom staff. It’s an old-boys’ club that is unlikely to bring in people from outside their peer group.”

If Luis Suárez received an eight-match ban, Chelsea’s John Terry could face a fine of up to £2,500 * if he is convicted of racially abusing Queens Park Rangers’ Anton Ferdinand. He appears in court on February 1st, and already furiously rejects the charge.

Videotape exists of the exchange, although TV stations started to cover Terry’s mouth after he was charged – but nobody else on the pitch said they heard him.

Much will depend on the verdict, as an acquittal will take away much of the heat behind demands for a new drive to stamp out racism, while it could also influence the decision of black players in future to level charges.

Football racism in all its forms is now to be probed by the House of Commons culture, media and sport committee, which last year showed itself to be less than impressed with football’s debt-fuelled, money-obsessed culture.

Beginning in March with testimony from the former Liverpool player John Barnes, the inquiry may end up going nowhere; even so, Rupert Murdoch’s experience before the committee last year showed that people’s performance in front of it can damage reputations. With a global brand, it is attention that football will not want.

*This article was amended on January 20th, 2012, to correct a factual error.