Let there be no doubt about it, English football – Scottish too – is in crisis. Not a financial one, not in the overriding sense that it’s going bust, though a few clubs continue to sail close to the wind. Nor in terms of the football on offer, which continues to enthral and enrage in equal measure. Not even in technological terms, whatever the frustrations that VAR is heaping upon a sport whose greatest selling point was, for so long, the fact that it hardly stopped, nor barely drew breath across 90 minutes. No. The crisis facing the game in Europe is the rise of the ugly spectre of racism once again, such that it threatens the fabric of the game itself.
Football’s Racism Problem Continues To Blight The Game
By Dave Bowler
If we look back at history, some might argue that we’ve never had it so good, that racism is now a comparatively small issue compared with the vile and violent days of the 1970s and 1980s, when bananas rained down upon black players, when monkey chants were commonplace and when crowds – crowds mark you, not just individuals – would chant such obscenities as “n-er, n-er lick my boots”. They were savage, intimidating times and if you weren’t there, I can promise you, we don’t ever want to see them again.
Are we more sensitive to racism now than we were then then? Unquestionably and quite right too, whatever a certain group in society, pining for the days of Empire, when the map was pink and the country was white, might think. Cyrille Regis received a bullet through the post when he was selected for England, telling him he’d get one through the knee if he actually played. That is a world away from a few voices shouting something loathsome, however terrible and intimidating that is.
So it is probably true that we have come a long way since then. You no longer get 5,000 Neanderthals joined in grunt or song, there are smaller numbers now in the grounds. Let’s not pretend we haven’t made progress, because we have. But let’s not pretend that we are not in great peril of slipping backwards either. It has become grim routine for black players who have the temerity to miss a penalty to open their Twitter accounts to find a volley of abuse from knuckle scraping keyboard warriors.
Week after week we hear of games where investigations will be taking place into racist abuse. This last weekend, there were such reports from Bristol City’s fans at Luton and Hearts v Rangers for example. Last month, the fixture between Hartlepool United and Dover Athletic almost ended in the sides walking off after more abuse from the stands. That kind of dramatic, last resort action was finally taken at the Haringey Borough v Yeovil Town FA Cup tie last Saturday, the match abandoned amid dreadful scenes.
It comes off the back of England almost doing likewise in Bulgaria, acting as a timely that before we get all holier than thou about the problems elsewhere – horrendous as the scenes out there were – we need to get our own house in order first.
That will be difficult to do in a nation where certain “populist” politicians have taken an anti-immigrant stance as a way of winning easy voters. That has emboldened the racism that has been largely suppressed, largely socially unacceptable for 20 years or more now. When you open Pandora’s Box, controlling the forces you release, especially those of hate, will usually prove impossible. That’s where we are now and, as football can only ever reflect the society in which it exists, small wonder that the tribalism it fosters spills over in such a way.
It’s ironic that this all happens at a time when the England national team, under the admirable Gareth Southgate, has never better pointed the way towards the modern aspirations of a 21st century country, not just in its multicultural composition, but in its social conscience, as impressively espoused by players such as Raheem Sterling for instance. Their dignity in Bulgaria and their willingness to make the final gesture of walking off was impressive.
Perhaps it might have been better yet had they walked off in Bulgaria. That might have set an irrevocable tone for the future. Let’s hope that, instead, that tone was by the players of Haringey Borough – and let’s not forget their Yeovil opponents who gave them their complete support in the face of a handful of dreadful “fans” of their side – last Saturday when they said enough was enough and walked off.
From here on, that must be the response. Zero tolerance, any game, any level. And if fans think they can hijack games that are going against them by behaving that way, let the authorities make it clear that all their away support will be banned from attending games for 12 months or, if it’s the home crowd, that it will be closed to their fans for the next three games, and no refunds on tickets. Perhaps then, the decent majority will have sufficient incentive to police these morons themselves.