Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Racism in English Football

Two recent high profile cases of footballers in England racially abusing opponents have shone a spotlight onto racism in the English national game. I have to say, compared with when I watched football in the 1970’s and 1980’s, the game has made good progress. In those days, black players were fairly rare, but whenever they touched the ball, opposing fans would break into a bout of booing. Some of the barracking was even worse, and who can forget the infamous incident when Everton fans threw bananas at the black Liverpool and England player, John Barnes? Other countries in Europe appear to have far worse racism problems in their football than England do, where black players are still routinely booed and abused.

Now, the English premier league attracts many footballers from many races and nationalities, and is the most popular national league in the world. But these recent incidents have demonstrated that racism still has a presence in English football.

Louis Suarez, the Uruguay and Liverpool player, was found guilty by a Football Association (FA) tribunal of racially abusing Patrice Evra the black French international, who plays for Manchester United. He received an eight match ban, but continued to proclaim his innocence and the unfairness of it all, and was backed to the hilt by his manager Kenny Dalglish and Liverpool Football Club.

The situation reached a nadir at the weekend when starting for the first time since his ban, Suarez refused to shake the hand of Evra before the return meeting of the two clubs in Manchester. Ex- Liverpool players, current players, assorted commentators, corporate sponsors and Liverpool’s American owners all demanded an apology from Suarez and his manager. This duly arrived a day later, which seemed to be grudgingly given, and only further shamed Liverpool FC.

The other recent case involves the Chelsea and (then) England captain, John Terry over racial abuse allegations to a Queens Park Rangers black player, Anton Ferdinand, which have landed Terry in court on a racially-aggravated public order offence. Terry, like Suarez, insists he is innocent, and his club have backed him, in a similar way to Liverpool did with Suarez.

When the court case was put back until the close of the football season in July, at the behest of Chelsea, with presumably Terry’s agreement, the FA in a rare moment of decisiveness stripped him of the England captaincy. They were worried, quite correctly in my view, that it would not be appropriate for the team captain to be under the shadow of racist allegations. The only mistake the FA made was not to remove Terry from the team altogether. The decision did though lead to the resignation of the team manager, Fabio Capello, in what he said was too much interference in his running of the team.

Much was made by Capello and Terry, that Terry is ‘innocent until proven guilty’, and in law this is indeed the case. But it was Terry and his club that wanted to delay the trial, which otherwise would have taken place in March, and been well out of the way, one way or the other, before the summer’s European Football Championship. So, to my mind the FA had to act to protect the image of the English game.

Who would have thought that football would be the stage upon which the issue of racism would be played out before the nation? And this coming only months after Sky Sports commentators Andy Gray and Richard Keys were sacked for making sexist remarks about a female assistant referee. English football has come a long way in challenging bigotry, if only they could deal with homophobia in the same enlightened fashion.